Britain: Covid and the universities

Thousands of university and college students are returning to further and higher education campuses despite warnings this will lead to significant outbreaks of Covid-19. The University and College Union (UCU) and other education unions are calling for online teaching as the default until the ‘five tests’ for a safe return are met. But with university bosses pushing ahead with campus reopening, what are the perspectives for campus outbreaks? And what could this mean for the emergence of student and workers’ struggles?

Around two million higher education students are starting courses at universities this month. Around 1.5 million of them are aged between 18 and 24 – the age range currently registering the highest Covid-19 infection rates per 100,000.

Young people are increasingly being blamed for the rise in cases, which averts attention from the government’s disastrous test-and-trace system, the push for workers to go back into, often unsafe, workplaces earlier this month, and the rush to reopen schools.

Nevertheless, the mass forming of new student households, particularly in halls of residence, where hundreds of students are living in close quarters, does increase the potential for rapid spreading of the virus.

A recent model predicting how the virus would spread in a UK university setting estimated that one in five students will get Covid-19 by the end of the first term, and 75% of students by the end of the academic year. The model, based on a medium-sized university, predicted that 1,000 students would be infected with Covid-19 in the mode university on the last day of term, coinciding with a return to family homes for Christmas.

The government’s scientific advisers in SAGE recently published a report which warned universities are “highly likely” to experience “significant coronavirus outbreaks” when students return to campus activity.

Fees fuel reckless return plans

Both the Tories and university bosses have pushed for a reckless return to campus learning. They are terrified that uncertainty and restrictions around coronavirus will mean many students defer their place, leaving universities – which rely on tuition fee income – financially ruined. The government has refused to underwrite or ‘bail out’ universities which get into financial difficulty due to reduced numbers.

Consequently, university bosses, similar to the big business bosses, have crossed their fingers and taken an ‘optimistic approach’. In reality, this means ignoring mounting evidence and planning for a ‘best case’ scenario.

They are promising campus-based activities, including sports facilities, café and bar opening, and face-to-face teaching, in the hope of securing student numbers. By guaranteeing in-person activity, they also hope to secure lucrative first-year accommodation revenue.

So far, student numbers are much higher than predicted at the start of the outbreak. A significant factor in the record UK student numbers  is the devastating work prospects for young people, including growing unemployment among 16-24-year-olds.

However, the same concerns for financial security fuelling the rushed return to campus activity have also influenced the amount university bosses are willing to spend on making campuses Covid-19 secure. Instead of employing additional teaching staff to allow smaller gatherings, casual staff have been left without work. Many other recommended measures, such as regular testing and provision of isolation accommodation, have been mainly ignored or minimally introduced by campus bosses.

Unsurprisingly, concerns are now mounting regarding record dropout rates when students discover that the reality of in-person teaching is nowhere near ‘business as usual’, and when they find themselves unable to secure part-time work to fund their studies.

Lessons from the US

UK scientists are particularly concerned that the UK could go in a similar direction to the United States, where large outbreaks have forced learning back online. The University of North Carolina registered 1,000 confirmed cases in the first week of teaching alone, out of a student population of 30,000.

Evidence from the US also discredits the belief young people are not severely affected by the virus – something used by the UK government and university bosses to downplay the significance of campus outbreaks. Growing information about post-acute Covid indicates that as many as a quarter of symptomatic young people have long-term complications, including heart inflammation and fatigue. The effects of students falling seriously ill, having previously been told they are relatively unaffected, could be another source of student anger.

Even if students themselves do not become severely ill, outbreaks on campuses spreading to local areas, potentially triggering local lockdowns, could cause divisions between students and local communities. Tensions could be further heightened if such measures coincide with the end of the furlough scheme and the threat of mass redundancies which will accompany it.

Research by the UCU found that more than half of polled residents in university towns believe that the student return will trigger additional restrictions, and half support online-only teaching this term. Currently, 48% of those polled said any rise in coronavirus cases as a result of university activity was the fault of the government, but nearly a quarter blamed students themselves. This is one reason why the government is determined to fuel divisions in society, deflecting blame onto young people.

One of the tasks of the UCU and the wider trade union movement is to counter this attempted deflection by holding firm that any outbreaks amongst the student community are the result of the reckless return strategy imposed by the Tory government and university bosses.

A programme which unites staff, students and local communities, and fights for the resources to ensure safety for all, including the continuation of furlough, will help avoid such divisions.

On the campuses, a programme to unite students and staff should include the call by the UCU for democratic trade union control and oversight of health and safety measures taken on the campuses, including democratic representation by the student population as well. This could afford the space for a democratic discussion about what it is everyone on campus requires for safe working and learning conditions.

If it is not safe, escalate!

The UCU is calling for online teaching as the default until the ‘five tests’ for a safe reopening for both staff and students are met. The union is also hosting a special conference later this month to propose a national claim over Covid-19 attacks. The five tests require much lower numbers of Covid-19 cases, a national plan for social distancing, comprehensive testing, and a whole university strategy for health and safety which includes the protection of the vulnerable, prior to a return to face-to-face teaching.

The unions should call for transparency regarding rates of local infection, including numbers of staff and student cases and for democratic workers’ control of testing. Individual members shouldn’t be left alone to fight, and the union should demand swift action in the event of outbreaks.

The campus unions should prepare for a national strike ballot, disaggregated by employer, to allow strike action to be taken if these steps have not been agreed, and if infection rates continue to pose a threat to the health and safety of members in their workplaces.

However,  unions’ escalation of their struggle for safe campuses should be combined with a fight for the resources needed on campus to ensure a safe, and the highest possible quality, learning environment. This could cut across attempts by university bosses to divide students and staff.

The UCU should appeal to students to struggle alongside staff for resources: for extra teachers and support staff to maximise socially distanced contact time, for more spaces to safely learn and socialise on campus, and for regular cleaning of learning spaces and student accommodation. The campaign could also take up the already existing demands of campus unions, such as bringing all outsourced, low-paid cleaning staff back in-house on trade union rates of pay.

Students rightly ask why they should pay for this campus experience. Workers ask why they pay the corona price in pay and conditions. Central to a unifying programme for safe campuses, education for all, and fighting cuts, is the demand for free education. Corbyn’s 2017 ‘For the Many Not the Few’ ‘grey book’ estimated that the cost of removing university tuition fees and restoring maintenance grants was £11.2 billion a year. That would not significantly change the  £210 billion spent on corona so far this year.

Outlook for students

Students will not relish the idea of moving to online learning in the face of further restrictions – paying £9,250 for the privilege, unable to afford decent technology and internet to support their learning. The prospect of further lockdowns could also provoke a backlash, especially given the isolation experienced by young people during the first wave, exacerbating mental health issues.

University bosses are cynically claiming their commitment to in-person teaching is to protect student mental health. Yet little attention has been given to how students will be supported when back on campus. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s current position is that students should not be allowed to return home in the event of a university outbreak, leaving thousands of students isolated and quarantining in often overcrowded or substandard accommodation.

Some universities are even attempting to profit out of so-called ‘Covid welfare’ measures, with one university found charging £25.00 for food parcels consisting primarily of budget noodles.

An effective quarantine strategy on campus has to include the provision of remote learning resources and equipment for students forced to isolate or awaiting test results, food delivery services for students, and the right of students to cancel or defer accommodation contracts without penalties, including part-way through the year if further lockdowns and campus closures are introduced.

In this environment, the demands for free education and living grants for students, which the Socialist Party puts forward, could win wide support. So too could the understanding of the need for democratic planning. Mechanisms such as making accommodation available for effective quarantine and isolation would mean students could return home safely following a negative Covid test in the event of a lockdown.

However, students face a crisis of leadership. Students need organisations through which they can democratically thrash out a programme the student movement needs to win. The already existing student unions,  the majority of which are affiliated to the National Union of Students, have a long record of acting simply as ‘consumer representatives’,  instead of putting forward fighting demands on the government and university bosses which can win the necessary support and resources for students to have quality education.

Socialist Students exists on campuses across the country to help build democratic and fighting campus-based student organisations, linking the struggles on separate campuses into a national struggle for free education, including the scrapping of tuition fees, introduction of student living grants and the cancellation of all student debt.

A socialist programme for universities during Covid

To ensure no detriment to staff, students or the wider community as a result of Covid-19, democratic planning is essential. The Socialist Party has called for the establishment of joint staff and student health and safety committees since the start of the pandemic.

These bodies could play a vital role in ensuring that there is no staff or student detriment as a result of Covid restrictions.  Any return plans which do not address the concerns and needs of staff and students are doomed to fail.

Even the government’s scientific advisers have encouraged universities to involve students when developing return-to-campus plans, to increase the likelihood of student adherence and “prevent anger, confrontation and stigmatisation”. The trade unions and students need to have representatives on all decision-making bodies regarding the return to campus activity. They should also be involved in decisions regarding further lockdowns and trigger points for campus closures.

Ultimately, the only way campus safety can be assured, while maintaining a quality education for students, is with adequate resources. The fee model of income is incompatible with this. Universities should be taken into democratic public ownership, so the resources in society can be used to ensure education and research benefit everyone, not just the capitalist system.


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September 2020