Coronavirus update – four weeks of unprecedented change

It’s now been four weeks since the University closed most of its buildings, moved teaching on-line and asked most of us to begin working from home. WFH has become a new, common acronym, as many of us have got used to not travelling to and from work. It makes you appreciate the small geographical area you circulate within if you only travel as far as you can walk. Many of our ancestors would have lived like this, but without the modern communication methods we are used to.

Over those four weeks, some people still working on site have been busy sorting out the practicalities of how to make sure the remaining students are looked after. They’ve also worked hard to maintain and secure the buildings.

Many others have, from home, tried to resolve a million questions about student lectures, seminars, practical classes, placements and what happens with assessments.

The answers to how all this is going to develop over the next few weeks and months are, frankly, anyone’s guess. These are more going to be questions for all universities on a global scale, rather than just this one. I’m sure people are debating behind the scenes what September/October looks like, but as time passes, surely the likelihood of face to face teaching being reinstated diminishes.

Without a reasonable expectation of some “normal” student experience, the numbers of potential students in the system will plummet. All kinds of individual decisions may well lead to a massive reduction in student intake this year. This brings into question the future of the sector, especially if the government is not willing to step in to save it.

So the trade unions are faced with two main issues.

  1. The health, safety and welfare of employees at the moment

We need to ensure that members of staff are working in such a way that means they don’t hurt themselves through unsuitable posture or overwork, and that work does not cause stress and anxiety over tasks which cannot reasonably be done. Our message has been that people can only do what they can and the University should accept that everyone is working as much as they feel able to.

It is also crucial that equipment needs are met in full as soon as possible. Where assessments show a need for chairs and IT equipment, this needs to be provided and we know that IS and Estates staff are working hard to deal with this as much as they can.

There also needs to be a recognition that for many people, this is all really hard to cope with.

Many people are suffering with this situation for a variety of reasons, some of which may not be directly related to work. People have vulnerable relatives and friends and childcare to worry about. People have partners who are out of work or risking their lives working to deliver necessary services. Some people may also be dealing with bereavement.

Managers need to be aware of this and all requests for work to be done need to be sympathetic and within what’s possible, given the circumstances.

We will continue to campaign for health and safety to be prioritised and for all practical solutions to be forthcoming as quickly as possible.

  1. The medium and longer term fortunes of the University of Brighton

There is no realistic possibility of the University returning to what we called “normal” by October. The number of students in the system will drop significantly. Places across the whole sector normally taken by international students will be filled by the remaining UK students who will move between institutions like never before. This is not going to be a problem which is unique to our university, but that doesn’t make it any less of a problem.

Whilst a cap on student recruitment for 2020-21 to prevent some aspects of this will help, if the potential students are not willing to enter higher education, we can’t make them come. It will be necessary for government intervention in the higher education sector which guarantees the survival of universities, not just because our jobs depend on that happening, but because universities provide a crucial service to society, both during and after a pandemic such as this.

We’ve been involved in planning a campaign for government intervention, which recognises the value of higher education, but this is not just about cash bailouts. It’s about recognising that the market system does not work, in particular when applied to public services such as ours, and that fully-funded universities, free for all able to access them, is one necessary outcome of this crisis.

Marketisation of higher education was a disaster anyway. This crisis has demonstrated that the attempt to organise education and wider society on the basis of market economics is outdated and short-sighted. It’s a system which falls apart when put to a real test.

It’s absolutely crucial that university leaders reject the current system and campaign, alongside trade unions, for fully-funded universities.

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