Coronavirus and the campuses

Covid-19, photo NIH/CC

Theo Sharieff, Socialist Students national organiser

As coronavirus has spread onto the university campuses, so has the discussion amongst students and workers on campus about how best to combat the spread of the virus and ensure the health and safety of students and workers.

Universities across the UK have made the announcement that they are offering only online teaching as a precautionary measure to limit face to face interactions and group gatherings to try and slow the spread of the virus.

But as is the case elsewhere in society, the coronavirus crisis has brutally exposed the fragility of the university system after a decade of Tory driven austerity and marketisation. It has also thrust forwards the fundamental question of who is most capable of handling and containing the outbreak of the virus on campus – university management, or workers and students themselves?

Years of Tory cuts and marketisation had seen universities stretched to their very limit even before the arrival of the coronavirus crisis. For the past three years,  university workers in the University and Colleges Union (UCU) have been forced into taking strike action as university management have presided over the explosion of zero hours contracts, a spiralling of workload, a collapse in pay and vicious attacks on pensions.

Meanwhile, the salaries of senior management on the campuses have skyrocketed – vice chancellors now earn an average of £253,000 a year, while nearly half earn over £300,000 a year, and six earn more than £500,000.

The trebling of tuition fees in 2010 by the Tory Liberal coalition marked a shift in how universities were funded, with central government funding for universities ultimately replaced by students’ tuition fees of up to nine thousands pounds a year. Students waged an almighty struggle on university campuses locally and nationally against the trebling of tuition fees.

With universities increasingly dependent on tuition fees as their main source of funding, the campuses have been packed to the gills with students without being accompanied alongside adequate increases in staffing and campus services to handle the massively increased intake of students. Students have suffered the overcrowding of lectures, seminars and libraries, cuts to student services, and extortionate rents for student housing as landlords squeeze as much profit out of students’ maintenance loans as possible.

Only in February was it revealed that management in a number of universities were caught asking students to sit in cafes and other spaces on campus to watch their lectures live streamed! This is a clear consequence of the removal of the cap of the maximum number of students as university management chase tuition fees and the maximum profits they can extract from higher education.

Where does all this leave universities in the face of the growing coronavirus crisis? Not well prepared at all! With staff already overstretched and student support services cut to the bone, university management should ensure emergency funding to make sure that full information and support is available to students, as well as full provision for health needs, including for soaps and sanitary provisions, and also the availability of food deliveries for students who are forced to self-isolate at university.

But how can university management be trusted to prioritise the health of students and staff on campus? Their priority for years has been to keep the money flowing, and to ensure the maximum profitability of the university system for the management at the top of the pile – why would the outbreak of the coronavirus be any different to them?

Socialist Students demands that the campus trade unions, alongside democratically elected committees of students, assume democratic oversight of the measures being taken to contain the virus on campuses. Only then could it be guaranteed that adequate measures are being taken in order to keep students and staff safe.

Reports have also suggested that universities are expecting a significant slowdown in the numbers of international students applying to university for the next academic year. A mere 10% fall in applications of students from China and other countries internationally affected by the virus could see a funding blackhole of approximately £200 million.

Socialist Students demands that any funding shortfall linked to the slowdown due to the coronavirus is not paid for by students or workers in the form of job cuts, attacks to working conditions, or by the further marketisation of higher education. If universities are struggling for funding as a result of the coronavirus, open the books to the democratic inspection of unions and students unions so we can see where our tuition fees are going, and so workers and students can launch a campaign for the funding we need from central government.

Campus workers will be asked to shoulder the burden of the crisis in more ways than this however. It is the workforce on campus – lecturers, teachers, admin and maintenance workers, cleaners, porters and other workers – who are dealing with the fall out of the virus, and will be at risk themselves of infection. We demand all workers should receive full pay and be excluded from any attendance management procedures, including zero hours contract workers on campus.

Socialist Students demands;

  • No more cuts to our education! Open the books to inspection by campus unions and elected student representatives.
  • For universities to produce emergency funding for the provision of support services for students who are forced to self-isolate at university, including health provision and food delivery where necessary. Students unions should be launching such campaigns on campuses.
  • No trust in the university bosses to handle to crisis! For democratic trade union and student union oversight of all measures taken to stop the spread of the virus.
  • For the right of students to defer their exams for a year without academic penalisation.
  • For universities to provide rent free accommodation for students and international students who are unable to get home because of self-isolation, transport cancellations etc.
  • Fight for fully funded and free education! Reverse all cuts and marketisation on campus, cancel student debt, and restore living grants for students!

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