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University #COVID19 outbreaks are a result of a broken, marketized system – Amy Smith, Halifax CLP

“This situation has always been entirely avoidable. It is the result of a broken system that values income over student & staff welfare.“

Amy Smith

The start of the new academic year has seen cases of Covid-19 break out across the UK’s campuses, but this is a situation that could have been prepared for and avoided. The correct response to the rising numbers of infections at universities should be to move teaching online, stop students from travelling to campuses where they hadn’t already done so, and deliver efficient testing to students and staff.  

This situation has always been entirely avoidable, and it is the result of a broken system that values income over student and staff welfare.  The students that have been locked down are rightly angry, and many are suffering from mental health problems as a result.

First year students, mostly 18-years old and away from home for the first time, face lockdown in the halls with peers who are effectively strangers. The first few weeks of term are already difficult. Lockdowns – combined with the threat of being interned in halls over Christmas – are adding further stress and anxiety. Those students who are yet to move face the difficult task of deciding whether to stay home with their families, or risk heading to campus only to find themselves in this distressing situation.

Universities and the Government have consistently claimed it is both safe and feasible to hold classroom teaching during a global pandemic. Education Secretary Gavin Williamson stated that “we have been providing robust public health advice and regular updates to the sector to help it to plan carefully to keep students and staff as safe as possible” and that “there must be parity” between measures at universities and in other sectors.

This is demonstrably not the case, even by the Government’s own measures. The Government has recently returned to encouraging people to work from home, and lectures and seminars can be delivered from home. To keep staff and students safe, we must push the Government to extend this advice to HEIs and we must campaign alongside UCU for universities to move all teaching online.

University staff, forced into face-to-face teaching, are also fearful for their own health and under immense stress.  University management pushed their staff to re-design courses for blended learning. Many institutions designed complex ways to deliver this, including halving seminar sizes and so doubling the number of classes, holding seminars in unsuitable classrooms to maintain social distancing, having staff write extra materials for online asynchronous learning, and recording all lectures for online delivery. The impact of this on academic and professional colleagues’ workloads has been huge and has been combined with the loss of many non-permanent staff who could have helped to carry the load.

All of this could have been avoided. An earlier acceptance that teaching for semester 1 would be online – and an honest discussion of what this would mean for students rather than a mad dash to convince them they could still have a reasonably normal university experience – would have reduced the burden on staff members. Students could have stayed at home, in safety, and still received high-quality teaching.

This would only have been possible with greater funding from the Government. Universities took these decisions to secure income from tuition fees and rent, subscribing to a broken business model that makes them reliant on these payments. By not providing sufficient funding the Government manufactured an entirely avoidable situation and has failed the sector and this generation of students. There was never any reason for the majority of students to move to campus at this time, beyond as a source of income.

Richard Burgon recently asked Williamson in Parliament if he and universities’ managers had put “students and staff at risk simply to uphold a broken university model as they fear[ed] online teaching would lead to demands for fee or rent refunds.” Williamson didn’t answer the question, but it is clear that is a resounding yes.

In the short-term Labour should now be demanding that the Government mandate online teaching, wherever possible, stop other students moving to campus, and push for comprehensive testing to be available on campuses. The Party must also push the Government to guarantee funding to universities. In the long term the fight must continue for a return to free higher education and publicly-funded grants.

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