News round-up: University staff and students bear the brunt of Covid-19

As Covid-19 continues to inflict damage across the higher education sector and with the plea for a financial bailout falling on deaf ears, students and staff have come out in full force to highlight “inhumane” management practices and responses to the pandemic.

NEW on the CDBU blog! ‘Don’t frighten the students’: the crisis of academic freedom in the managed university

Liz Morrish had an unblemished record of 30 years in academia without so much as a late library book to her name. That all changed when she publicly voiced her opinions on the terrible toll managerialism was having on academics’ mental health – and she found herself charged with gross misconduct. In this report for the Council for the Defence of British Universities, Morrish recounts what happens next – and warns that for the younger generation of researchers, academic freedom may be a thing of the past.

Click here to download the report as a pdf.

Covid-19 shows universities shameful employment practicesThe Guardian, Stefan Collini, 28/04/2020

One byproduct of the coronavirus pandemic has been to focus attention on the precariousness of so many people’s economic circumstances: working long hours, yet one step away from destitution. This should, in truth, not be news to any of us, but there is so much from which we avert our gaze. And in universities, that gaze has in recent years been averted, above all, from the plight of temporary and part-time academic staff.

The marketisation of universities in the past decade has changed their ethos as well as their funding. Older notions of an academic community, or a scholarly career, have been replaced by economic analyses that look to reduce unit costs per output. Replacing permanent staff with cheaper, disposable temporary ones reduces the power of academics and increases that of managers.

New HEPI report suggests further falls in the wellbeing of university staff HEPI, Dr Liz Morrish and Professor Nicky Priaulx, 30/04/2020

Dr Liz Morrish, co-author of the report, said:

“The first Pressure Vessels report was well received by staff who work in higher education. However, some managers and executives appeared unwilling to accept the findings of year-on-year increases in mental health problems. We hope this updated report will confirm our case beyond argument. The current sample of institutions has identified increases in referrals to occupational health and counselling as high as 500% since 2010. We have also looked at the effect of this climate of workplace stress on staff retention. As we look forward to a future after the Covid-19 pandemic, higher education staff and managers would be unwise to disregard the additional pressures this will bring. Like the virus, workplace stress is here to stay and must be addressed.”

Read ‘Pressure Vessels II: An update on mental health among higher education staff in the UK’ here.

Cross-union campaign launched at the University of Sussex to prevent staff cuts Crisis Justice at Sussex, 30/04/2020

The lowest paid and most vulnerable employees are most at risk of losing their jobs in a controversial review of staff being undertaken by the University of Sussex, warned unions today (Thursday 30 April 2020). The University Executive Group (UEG), led by Vice Chancellor Adam Tickell, is implementing cost cutting measures as part of its response to Covid-19. These include reviewing and ending all non-essential casual and temporary contracts.

University of Sussex trade union branches have launched a Crisis Justice at Sussex campaign to fight plans that could see the contracts of hundreds of temporary and casualised workers under threat. Some of those contracts will expire in the next two months, and will not be renewed under UEG’s current plans. This will leave people potentially without income at a time where they will be unable to find other work. The unions are calling for the protection of pay and conditions during the current crisis and an extension of contracts of casualised staff until after the crisis is over.

Universities’ plea for £2bn bailout falls on deaf ears Financial Times, Peter Foster, 22/04/2020

The Treasury is resisting calls for a £2bn bailout of UK universities, insisting that they should not be treated differently from other hard-pressed industries, raising fears of bankruptcies in the higher education sector. The Treasury’s opposition to a sector-specific bailout for universities, which was confirmed by officials from three Whitehall departments, comes despite increasing warnings that some universities face crippling losses because of the Covid-19 crisis.

Its resistance has caused division in Whitehall as well as objections from senior figures in the university sector. They warn that a bailout is essential to protecting the national research base that will play a key role in the post-Covid recovery phase.

Coronavirus could see universities go bust The Telegraph, Keith Burnett, 24/04/2020

Our university system was fully privatised only a few years ago. It happened in several steps as the Government withdrew the base funding that most of the population thinks it still has. People noticed the marketisation, of course – the introduction of tuition fees, the student loans company and a newly competitive “market” for students from home and abroad.

Inevitably, this “market” then needed a regulator. Value for money was to be decided by excellence frameworks ranked gold, silver and (fearfully) bronze. Marketing budgets soared. However, many people failed to notice what had really happened. Our universities had become providers of education and research with the equivalent of zero hours contracts.

Durham reverses controversial restructure BBC News, 22/04/2020

Durham University had mooted moving modules online from this autumn and cutting the overall number by 25% in a bid to ease “workload pressures”. Its vice-chancellor has now said heads of departments will not be required to reduce the courses they had planned.

Professor Stuart Corbridge said: “I am happy to say that I think we misjudged our academics. It is very clear that most academics do not want to let go of their courses.

See also: Lecturers condemn Durham University’s plan to shift degrees online

Imperial College warns of cuts in face of Coronavirus The Guardian, Sally Weale, 20/04/2020

Imperial College London, whose research has played a key role in the government’s response to the Covid-19 crisis, has warned of widespread cuts to mitigate the damaging impact of the pandemic on the institution. In an email to staff last week, Prof Alice Gast, the college president, said she was taking a voluntary 20% pay cut as she announced a raft of cost-cutting measures, including the suspension of capital projects, a freeze on recruitment and plans to furlough staff members.

UK youth employment prospects crumbling in coronavirus crisis The Guardian, Jasper Jolly, 20/04/2020

Some of the UK’s biggest employers have cancelled or delayed recruitment schemes and internships, amid concerns that the coronavirus pandemic could hit the job prospects of young people the hardest. Many of the largest graduate employers are services firms whose employees must work from home under the government’s lockdown guidelines, making welcoming new trainees difficult. At the same time, many big employers have already reported a steep fall in work as the lockdown recession bites, meaning training new workers has fallen down the list of priorities.

For the emerging transition, the sector has lots to learn from SU leadershipWonkhe, Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, 17/04/2020

Undergraduate Education Officer Hillary Gyebi-Ababio: The first thing we’re going to have to do is listen to students. And I mean really listen – not just to their aggregated scores on a satisfaction questionnaire, but to their concerns and the realities of their lives. During the crisis I’ve heard too many stories from other SU officers about the surprise expressed by senior staff that students might not have broadband at home, might have signed a contract for 2020-21 accommodation that costs more than their loan, or might have caring responsibilities during school closures that make taking any exams – online or not – impossible.

Higher Education after Covid-19Discover Society, John Holmwood, 24/04/2020

The shift from the direct public funding of higher education to fee-based funding supported by student loans was supposed to put university finances on a stable footing and remove them from politics. Yet, after Covid-19, it is clear that fee-based systems of higher education (whether in the UK, Australia or the US) are in crisis, while those that remain publicly-funded (for example, Denmark, Germany, or Netherlands) are not.

In Britain, Universities UK has called for large bailouts to prevent the failure of some institutions and to maintain the system. Universities, it would seem, have become more beholden to politics not less, notwithstanding that government now seems unwilling to help.

Digital divide ‘isolates and endangers’ millions of UK’s poorestThe Guardian, Annie Kelly, 28/02/2020

Lockdown is creating a stark digital divide in the UK, with 1.9 million households with no access to the internet and tens of millions more reliant on pay-as-you-go services to make phone calls or access healthcare, education and benefits online.

Frontline community groups and charities are warning that the digital exclusion of some of the UK’s poorest and most vulnerable households and communities is having a devastating effect across the country.

Students more anxious than excited about starting workHigher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) , 28/04/2020

Rachel Hewitt, HEPI’s Director of Policy and Advocacy, said:

“These results show students feel confident about finding work, but anxious about starting their career. This anxiety has been there since before the current pandemic for many students, but for almost a third the current circumstances have exacerbated these feelings. Universities need to provide as much support as they can for students who are entering the labour market in such uncertain times and employers need to be mindful of these results in their hiring processes.”

Universities are expecting 230,000 fewer students, that’s serious financial pain The Guardian, Jo Grady, 23/04/2020

Our universities are a vital and unique part of our society with an importance that far outweighs their considerable economic value. Yet research into the impact of Covid-19, conducted by London Economics for the University and College Union, shows that universities face a black hole of at least £2.5bn in fee and grant income for 2020-21 as students both in the UK and around the world defer or abandon their plans to study here.

The new analysis suggests that over 230,000 fewer students will enter higher education in 2020 as a result of the crisis, over half of which are international students. That fall in student numbers would translate into a drop in income of around £1.51bn from non-EU students, £350 million from EU students and £612 million from UK students opting to stay away.

UUK proposed cap won’t stop recruitment battle Times Higher Education, Anna McKie, 28/04/2020

Higher education experts have warned that a number cap proposed by Universities UK will not be enough to prevent instability in the sector and could lead to more prestigious institutions hoovering up recruits.

At the same time, admissions offices are grappling with a cohort whose A-level grades have had to be calculated based on teacher predictions and class rankings, rather than exams, and the possibility that first-year students will begin their studies by being taught online for the autumn term.

MP’s call for grants to help students in difficulty The Guardian, Sally Weale, 23/04/2020

MPs with university constituencies are calling on the government to set up emergency maintenance grants for students from low-income backgrounds who are in financial difficulty as a result of the pandemic.

They are part of a cross-party campaign seeking to alert the chancellor to the students’ plight and calling on him to offer financial support to those who have lost jobs and are not entitled to claim universal credit.

See also: “I can’t afford rent” – the students facing hardship during lockdown

Ex-UK Minister calls for four-year post-study work visa Times Higher Education, Jack Grove, 23/04/2020

Introducing a four-year post-study work visa and even a path to UK citizenship for foreign students could help to reduce the huge slump in international enrolments predicted for the next academic year, according to former universities minister Chris Skidmore.

With UK universities braced to lose billions of pounds of funding as a result of international students not travelling during the coronavirus crisis, Universities UK has called on the government to allow “greater flexibility” on student visas as part of a £2 billion rescue package the sector is seeking.

Foreign student fall threatens free tuition in Scotland The Times, Kieran Andrews, 22/04/2020

Free tuition in Scotland is under threat as university leaders warn it is “inconceivable” that the volume of foreign students needed to subsidise the policy will be maintained following the coronavirus outbreak. Universities currently receive public funding for each Scottish student that they take on but the money does not cover the full costs of a degree.

Fees paid by overseas students subsidise places for Scots and help bridge the gap for research projects but Universities Scotland, the umbrella body for institutions, warned this month that the sector faces a £500 million black hole because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Universities face a harsh lesson Financial Times, Andrew Jack, 21/04/2020

For now, academics at hundreds of higher education institutions across the world are focused on responding to the short-term disruption caused by the pandemic in maintaining staff and student welfare, shutting down campuses and adapting to teaching and exams conducted online. But many fear a broader upheaval, restructuring and even closures — something that critics have long anticipated. The economic and social impact of the pandemic are accelerating changes to admissions, income and working practices which are set to transform the shape of higher education in all aspects — from how it is funded to how lessons are taught. 

‘The gap will be bigger than ever’: Grammar school exams still going ahead The Guardian, Melissa Benn, 25/04/2020

In this time of crisis, exams are off: GCSEs, A-levels, Sats. All except one … the 11-plus, a test that was phased out in most parts of the country decades ago, but that means everything to families in areas still operating a system of grammars and de facto secondary moderns.

The decision to go ahead looks increasingly ill-judged as the lockdown extends, particularly given the well-established statistics on the low numbers of disadvantaged children accessing grammar schools in a normal year, and emerging evidence of the rapid widening of the educational gap as a result of coronavirus.

Coronavirus crisis no excuse for price-fixing, private schools warned The Guardian, Sally Weale, 29/04/2020

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) said it had been made aware that a number of independent schools “may be engaging in discussions with each other about the level of discounts and/or refunds on school fees”.

A letter from the CMA to the Independent Schools Council and other bodies representing the sector warned that moves to agree prices and exchange commercially sensitive information would almost certainly infringe competition law and could result in fines of up to 10% of total turnover.

More questions than answers as PhD students get six months more funding Wonkhe, Andrew McRae, 14/04/2020

In the hours before the Easter break, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) gifted final-year PhD students an extra six months of funding. It is symptomatic of this period of accelerated policy-making that this announcement felt long-awaited. It is perhaps also a sign of the times that its details took many people by surprise – begging as many questions as they answered, inciting a wave of grumpy tweets from students, and leaving universities with fresh headaches to nurse over the vacation.

Covid-19 is presenting intense challenges for postgraduate research students (PGRs). Some are unable to proceed with the core business of research – conducting experiments, collecting data, working in archives, and so on. Many are international students, sitting out university closures either in their home countries, and many have young children, and therefore be affected by the closure of nurseries and schools.

Student complaints about universities surge to record high ITV, 30/02/2020

Complaints to the universities watchdog have surged to a record high – with dissatisfied students receiving more than £740,000 in refunds and compensation last year. The Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) received 2,371 complaints from students in 2019 – the highest number ever received in a year – and it was an increase of 21% on 2018.

The bulk of complaints were over academic appeals – such as problems with marking and final degree results, but some of the increase can be attributed to complaints over industrial action.

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