Returning to campus after ‘lockdown’

Nick Cimini and other rs21 members working in Higher Education report here on the crisis facing UK universities and the plans now being drawn up for a return to campus. The marketisation of Higher Education is now putting lives at risk.

Edinburgh Napier University is threatening mass redundancies. EIS is asking it to explore all ‘alternatives’. Photo: author

The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed a number of fault lines in UK Higher Education and left many universities in a precarious financial position. In the absence of adequate support from government, university bosses have started drawing up plans for ‘streamlining operations’ and making other ‘efficiency savings’ (code for thousands of staff, primarily but not exclusively casual and fixed term contract staff, being made redundant). At the same time, those that survive the cull are being pressured to work hurriedly over the summer to prepare their materials for ‘blended learning’ – that is, simultaneous online and  face-to-face delivery, despite the persistent health and safety risks.

Projected financial losses

Covid-19 has affected all areas of society, including universities. The Institute for Fiscal Studies recently estimated that UK Higher Education institutions face losses ranging from £3bn to £19bn in 2020-21, with a central projection calculating an £11bn loss, as a result of the crisis. The median prediction, not the worst-case scenario, would put 13 (unnamed) universities in England into insolvency.

The HE landscape in Scotland does not fare much better. A recent briefing from the Scottish Funding Council predicted that all 18 Scottish universities will go into deficit in 2020-21 (analysis does not include Open University Scotland).

These predicted losses of income, primarily from student accommodation and international students, will likely have cumulative impacts for several years into the future. Undergraduate students not matriculating this year will mean reduced income from accommodation rentals and tuition fees for at least another three years in England and Wales (four years in Scotland).

The effect on university finances is likely to be uneven. Less prestigious universities tend to have lower cash reserves and will therefore be more vulnerable than research-intensive institutions.

The government has responded to this bleak financial predicament with a limited package of support, which comes with strings attached. First, institutions requiring a bailout will be forced to abide by the government’s interpretation of free speech. Abiding by the government’s interpretation does not mean, for example, defying the stifling Prevent agenda, a piece of counterterrorism legislation which claims to stop terrorism by identifying people on the path to radicalisation, but in fact shuts down debate and forces lecturers and others to ‘act as stormtroopers’ to spy on their students. Rather, abiding by the government’s interpretation of free speech means that universities will be required to provide a platform for racists, sexists, transphobes, and other bigots, and to stifle any opposition against such bigotry.

Second, institutions in need of a bailout will be required to cut degree programmes that don’t produce high earning graduates. This ‘value for money’ test is a further ratcheting-up of a worrying trend – manifest in a variety of ways – towards a transactional view of a university degree as a private good, with an exchange value, as opposed to being a social good that is useful in itself.

Attempts at measuring the success of a university in terms of the earning power of graduates are fraught with difficulties. For a start, the earning power of a university graduate cannot tell us about the ‘value-added’ by a particular degree programme. It tells us nothing whatsoever about teaching quality and what actually happens in a classroom or a lecture theatre. Besides, it is well established by now that the best predictor of a graduate’s income is to be found in parental income and social class background – not the degree programme chosen. Other significant predictors include gender, ethnicity, disability and sexuality.

Arts and humanities, languages, and social sciences programmes are particularly vulnerable here, because there are often more complex routes into employment for graduates in these areas and starting salaries tend to be lower than for disciplines such as medicine and law. Value for money will therefore be easier to demonstrate for lawyers than for linguists. Ultimately, it is perverse in the extreme to measure the success of a university based on graduate earning power, particularly when we consider issues such as a global health crisis, climate change and the kinds of diverse skills that will be required to ensure a just transition to a more sustainable society.

The impact on jobs

The IFS briefing predicts that universities will be unable to recoup their losses by reducing non-staff costs alone and will additionally be required to make ‘significant’ numbers of staff redundant. Perhaps predictably, hourly paid and fixed term contract staff were first in the firing line of bosses. Readers of this website will already be aware of the thousands of casualised staff that work in HE and who are not having their contracts renewed, many of whom, by virtue of their employment status, will not be entitled to any legally binding redundancy processes or payments.

These casual and hourly paid staff have propped up the HE sector. According to HESA (the Higher Education Statistics Authority), 33% of academic staff in UK HE were on fixed term contracts in 2017-18. Cuts here will therefore severely reduce the quality of university teaching and add to the workloads of other staff members.

However, in an entirely foreseeable next step by university bosses, the noose is now being tightened further around those staff on ‘permanent’/ open-ended contracts. Cost cutting measures being muted by bosses include departmental restructures, voluntary severance schemes, pay freezes, pay cuts, freezing promotions, a six day working week, an extension of the working day from 9am to 9pm, and a freeze on incremental pay increases. There is also some talk, for example at the University of Sheffield, of sacking up to 8,000 staff and re-engaging them on lesser terms and conditions.

A handful of universities have begun to consult with trade unions over compulsory redundancies. Imperial College London (ICL), for example, plans to cut 75 ICT jobs in a move that could potentially undermine efforts to fight covid.

Joining ICL, as the first and thus far the only university in Scotland to move to compulsory redundancies, is Edinburgh Napier University (ENU) which has opened consultations with unions over at least 70 proposed redundancies before next year’s final student numbers are known. Unions involved in the consultation (UNISON and the EIS) have called on the university to ‘exhaust’ all alternatives to compulsory redundancies. Lorcan Mullen, the UNISON regional organiser, told the Edinburgh Evening News:

Napier manages its finances very stringently and went into this crisis better placed than the vast majority of other Scottish universities – it is also far from the worst hit by the Coronavirus…. It should not be the first Scottish university moving to cut jobs, and it should not be going to compulsory redundancies before alternative measures have been exhausted.

Indeed, independent research shows that it is precisely thanks to this stringent management and the actions of staff that ENU is well placed to withstand the crisis. According to this research, even if ENU recruited just 50% of the Scottish students it usually has, it would still have an at risk score of only 2.5% and would rank 75 out of 178 institutions in terms of financial risk. This is a relatively low risk compared to other universities in a similar position. The petition to prevent redundancies at ENU can be signed and shared from here.

Getting back to campus

As the UK mortality has started to decline (from the highest in the world per head of population), and we begin to come out of the so-called ‘lockdown’, university bosses have started also drawing up plans for the new academic year and what they are calling ‘blended learning’ (combining distant and face-to-face teaching methods). Key to the success of these blended learning plans will be meaningful consultation with staff and students.

The British government’s serial mismanagement of the Covid crisis has cost thousands of lives. Though the mortality rate is currently in decline, the virus has not gone away and there are legitimate fears of a second wave and yet more localised outbreaks. This makes the rush to reopen university campuses all the more problematic.

However, universities care about students primarily in their capacity as ‘consumers’. This view of students as consumers, choosing to study this or that degree much in the same way one might choose a Mars bar or Snickers, seriously compromises the health and safety of staff, students and the communities they serve. It is this view of students that is leading universities to rush to open campuses and make all kinds of promises about face-to-face delivery. Plans to reopen campuses are being driven by economic considerations and the need for universities to compete for ‘bums on seats’. The welfare of staff, students and their wider communities appears a very low priority.

The trade union leaderships have been slow to react to this unfolding crisis. Initiatives such as the Corona Contract and the Convention for Higher Education have emerged independently of the official union structures. It is clear that staff themselves, with the support of their wider communities, cannot depend entirely upon the leadership of the labour movement. Pressure will need to come from below to ensure that union leaders and others in the labour movement do everything in their power to defend jobs and make the wider the arguments about the real value of education.


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