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Covid-19 information and updates

Covid-19 HE

UCU report highlights the crisis facing HE - and what we can do to avoid it

24 April 2020

Yesterday UCU published a report by London Economics, highlighting the extent of the crisis facing higher education as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, and what needs to be done to protect the sector.

You can find our press release here and the full report here. I have also published an article in the Guardian commenting on the implications of the report which you can read here.

In this email I want to outline what the prospects are for higher education and what you can do as a member of this union to help defend the sector and your colleagues throughout this period.

Economic effects of Covid-19

The report's main findings are as follows:

  • the sector is expected to lose around £2.5bn in tuition fee income in the coming year, largely as a result of international students deferring or cancelling their plans to study here
  • there could be as many as 30,000 jobs cut within the sector if no action is taken to mitigate the damage and protect staff
  • those 30,000 higher education job losses would be compounded by another 30,000 jobs lost elsewhere in the economy, making 60,000 in total
  • the overall cost to the UK will be more than £6bn.

The economic consequences of the pandemic will not be distributed equally, however. Wealthy institutions that could draw on their reserves to weather the storm are instead trying to pass on the damage to other parts of the sector. We can see this in the package of measures proposed by Universities UK which our report shows would only shift the worst effects to smaller, poorer institutions.

What will the consequences be for staff?

Precariously employed staff are likely to bear the brunt of any job cuts. We are already seeing employers move to reduce the numbers of fixed-term and other casualised staff on their books. But they are not going to stop there: Universities UK and individual employers have already proposed freezes to recruitment and to pay increases linked to promotions, along with other measures that will ripple through the whole workforce. In institutions that do impose redundancies, much of the work done by staff who have been made redundant will be shifted on to those who remain, making workloads even worse than they were before.

Now more than ever it is in everyone's interests to come together in their institutions and across the sector, and do everything possible to protect jobs and resist other detrimental changes to our working conditions.

What is UCU doing?

This is a struggle which we are going to have to undertake on a UK-wide and an institution-by-institution basis at the same time.

As I have outlined in previous emails, UCU has already been campaigning nationally by pressing the government to underwrite the sector's lost income from tuition fees and other sources, protect against redundancies and institutional bankruptcy, and reform the welfare system in order to provide a meaningful safety net for those who are most impacted by the crisis.

What we are doing now is calling ministers' attention to our detailed analysis of the impact and highlighting the fact that spending money now to protect the sector will save far more money over the longer term. If the government guarantees that £2.5bn in lost tuition fees, it will save £6bn overall. As we saw after the 2008 financial crisis, countries that act to stimulate the economy are better placed to recover than those that insist on austerity.

What can I do about this?

Even if the sector as a whole is facing serious financial trouble, many institutions will use the crisis as a pretext for making changes that are driven by ideology rather than genuine financial need. A number of wealthy universities have enough reserves to get through the coming year - but they are still trying to rush through detrimental changes without proper negotiation or consultation with UCU.

Because of the government's lockdown and social distancing measures, it is currently impossible for UCU to conduct industrial ballots - which are required by law to be postal rather than online - and call industrial action. This removes one of our main sources of leverage against employers, and means we need to be as creative and organised as we can to defend our interests.

We need as many staff in the sector as possible to join our call for the government to support the whole sector by underwriting lost income. A lot of MPs in constituencies with nearby universities will be sensitive to the economic consequences of failing to protect higher education. UCU has designed a template letter for you to write to your MP and ask them to support our demands.

But there is more we can do, within our institutions as well as beyond them. Now is the time in particular for those of you who are more securely employed and senior to think about what you can do in your workplace to defend your less securely employed colleagues and protect yourselves from worsening workloads. 

Each of you will have different kinds of institutional influence and leverage at your disposal - whether it's managing research grants, sitting on recruitment committees, planning timetables, serving as a departmental Athena SWAN lead, or something else. Over the coming months staff will need all the leverage they can get to manage this crisis.

If you're not normally accustomed to taking part in meetings of your UCU branch, now is the time to start doing it - you will hear from colleagues in similar positions throughout the university, realise that they are facing similar issues, and decide what your collective response should be.

Working towards a better future for HE

This is a pivotal moment. Changes to the way universities are funded in the last ten years have left many institutions extremely vulnerable to the effects of this pandemic, and made the fault lines in our education system clearer than ever. UCU is committed to achieving a free, publicly funded education system that benefits society as a whole, and our immediate demands are an important step on the way to achieving that.

This year we have grown considerably as a union. Our membership is at record levels and we are better organised and stronger. We are capable of navigating this crisis and working towards a better, more sustainable tertiary education system - but there will be a lot of challenges over the coming months and we will need to keep using all of our resourcefulness and commitment to overcome them.

Jo Grady
UCU general secretary

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