The impact of the Coronavirus on society is immense. Every aspect of our lives has been touched by the virus. Our working lives, home lives and how we relate to one another, physically and socially has been shaped by COVID-19.
A popular movement involving health workers, educationalists and scientists forced the government to lockdown the UK. In reality the government is still carrying out its preferred method of dealing with the virus the so called ‘herd immunity’ to deal with the crisis. Boris Johnson’s government has utterly failed to protect the population. The World Health Organisation’s recommendation to combine lockdown with testing and PPE for frontline workers has not been implemented by the government.
As the death rate reaches the highest level within Europe (even before deaths in care are accounted for), there is a growing concern about the government’s handling on the virus. Millions participated in the International Workers Day memorial event in commemoration of frontline workers who have died.
The death toll is disproportionally hitting workers from BAME backgrounds and those with ‘underlying health conditions’ meaning people with disabilities.
Those colleges and university UCU branches who threatened to refuse to go to work if management did not close down their institutions were right to do so. Their actions in all likelihood saved lives.
There is a battle taking place in society between priorities of lives or profit. The attempt to question the validity of lockdown by some scientists is given significant airtime and press coverage: this represents a deliberate campaign to push back against the WHO-recommended strategy, in the same way as ‘climate denial’ was used to justify inaction for decades. We can most clearly see this being played out with the Trump-led ‘break the lockdown’ protests in the US.
Inside the colleges and universities, UCU members have risen magnificently to the challenge of supporting our students and communities. Some employers are working with UCU branches, especially where management have accepted we are working on a goodwill basis. Unfortunately, many employers are not. There is a drive in many institutions to get staff to work on a ‘business as usual’ approach, leading to great stress and anxiety for many of our members as they grapple to work from home and look after families. In Higher Education it is research staff who are likely to be among the first group coerced unnecessarily back to work.
In all sectors employers are positioning themselves for a post-coronavirus world. The government have forecasted a 35% drop in economic growth with the possibility of unemployment rising to 2 million.
Higher Education is facing the biggest crisis in its history, as the tuition fee market bubble is expected to burst, leaving a £2.5bn ‘black hole’. The employers are lining up for a full-frontal assault on the sector, using bankruptcy and closure to make thousands of redundancies. We can expect them to break up pay national bargaining and try to extract cuts in pay.
This crisis is wholly due to the fees-and-loans funding model. The Financial Times notes that universities elsewhere in the world that are not subject to tuition fee markets are not at risk.
Proposals from Universities UK for a government bailout are intended to entrench privilege within the sector and preserve the very market competition that led to this crisis. It is a recipe for a continuing crisis, especially if Coronavirus impacts on student recruitment, especially overseas student recruitment, for years to come. The move to teach online risks becoming permanent – the new Normal.
Maintaining and building branch organisation
Despite living and working in lockdown, the potential to build and grow union organisation is real – and essential. Many branches have met using different online platforms. But many have not.
We suggest that UCU should:
- Launch a series of regional briefings on how to organise a branch in the lockdown.
- Launch an online recruitment campaign.
- Organise a series of sector-specific virtual meetings for members and officers to discuss how to prevent employers carrying out a ‘business as usual’ approach, support safe working at home, etc.
- Organise a series of national online protests around key issues. For example, health and safety, equality and casualisation.
- Demand campuses remain closed until national agreements are made on safe distancing, testing and tracing are all guaranteed.
Fighting for a post-16 education sector in a post-coronavirus world
UCU must position itself to be able to deal with the fallout during and following the lockdown. We should do so by rejecting any pessimism that our employers share about the lack of funding for the sectors. Never again should we accept that there is no money for education. The COVID-19 crisis has shown there is indeed a ‘magic money tree’.
Both sectors are going to be vital to the reconstruction of the post-coronavirus world. UCU must demand government underwrite the costs of maintaining and expanding post-16 education in the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis.
UK post-16 sectors’ vulnerabilities are a direct consequence of following market dogma and speculating on global education.
We must start now to argue for a different model of further and higher education. A model that places knowledge, research, planning and collaboration at its centre instead of the market and competition. UCU has excellent policy in all these areas and has produced convincing manifestos and charters that outline a progressive model of how post-16 education could be run.
We suggest that UCU:
- Organise a series of national virtual meetings on different aspects of our alternative vision for post-16 education.
- Launch a campaign over funding for mental health support.
- Publicly campaign against the UUK bailout plan, making the case for publicly funded and accountable Higher Education accessible to all who can attend
- Campaigns for the expansion of provision for those young and older workers unable to gain employment following any post COVID recession.
- Campaigns for an end to tuition fees and to reintroduce student maintenance grants.
- Campaigns for the government to financially underpin all post-16 institutions that are suffering financial hardship due to the Covid-19 crisis, defend on-going educational provision, and preserve jobs and terms and conditions.