Making Workers Pay: The True Cost of Coronavirus in The University Sector.

For years universities in the UK have been operating as businesses. Increasingly for-profit, they have been shamelessly charging students high tuition fees, providing the bare minimum of service and spending money on management salaries and grandiose projects. The current crisis has made clear that universities do not care about workers, students, or research, only about money. 

Britain’s universities welcomed close to a million new students last year. A fifth of those are non-EU international students, who pay fees many times higher than those of UK or EU students. The current crisis and its impact on travel, personal finances and the wider global economy, means most international students are expected to stay in their own countries or defer entry. There are expected to be 230,000 fewer new students, including 92,000 fewer from outside the EU, for the 20/21 academic year. This creates a massive hole in the budgets of especially Russel group universities, for whom, on average, 30 per cent of new students come from overseas. Non-EU students are the source of almost half of Oxbridge’s tuition fees income.

Charging students from abroad outrageous fees was never a sustainable source of income, and the current health crisis has proven this. When times were good universities built expensive accommodation, unnecessary buildings, for example in 2018, the University of Nottingham opened the Teaching and Learning building at a cost of almost £15m, and paid their management teams enormous salaries. Now, faced with a £2.5b loss of income, universities look to already underpaid staff to shoulder the cost. A number of universities have already announced cost-cutting measures, all of which have faced criticism from the University and College Union.

Manchester University expects losses of up to £270m next year. Vice-chancellor Nancy Rothwell wrote a letter to staff in which she says they have frozen all non-essential expenditures. The letter highlights that staff have been amazing in their response to the crisis, and that the loss in income is from tuition fees and other university projects such as catering and accommodation. Despite this, it is staff who are first in line to suffer. Pay cuts, letting go of staff on flexible contracts and a freeze on new appointments and research grants are all going to happen. This means stalled careers, loss of job prospects, and since these moves are sector-wide, a terrible environment for academics. 

Dame Nancy Rothwell, President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Manchester.

Durham University has decided to take a different approach. They plan to cut face-to-face teaching hours by a quarter, relying more on online teaching. This online teaching is then planned to be outsourced to private companies. Such a move from an ‘elite’ university shows that commercialised UK universities no longer differ in any way from profiteering corporations.

The case of Stanmore College is one of exceptional lack of care and incompetence. In an email to staff the college admitted that they could not work out whether their staff were eligible for the government’s job retention scheme. Having failed to do what tens of thousands of business across the UK have managed to do, they gave their employees two weeks’ notice that their hours will be cut to zero.            

These universities’ behaviour are just examples of practices that have plagued the higher education industry in the UK. More and more university services are being outsourced to external companies or employment agencies. The last academic year saw two rounds of strike action by the UCU regarding too high workloads, pay inequalities, job insecurity and pay deflation. A recent report from the Higher Education Policy Institute has shown that academics’ mental health has taken a further hit. Since 2010, referrals to occupational health and counselling have increased by up to 500 per cent. Universities claim to have world-class teaching and research to attract more fee-payers, while staff continue to be overworked and underpaid. This cannot go on.

The UCU continues to stand up for precarious workers’ rights. They are bargaining with universities to safeguard casual workers’ pay and to make use of the government’s furlough scheme where necessary. Some universities, including Sheffield, Exeter and King’s College London, have pledged to protect their casualised or fixed-term staff. In the difficult times to come, it is more important than ever for students and university staff to stand together. We must ensure that the costs of the crisis are not paid for in job losses, pay cuts and quality of teaching and research.  

Photo-credits UoM Maths Department. Under CC BY 2.0 license.

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