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Coronavirus and our higher education disputes

25 March 2020

Since our national executive committee instructed me to write to vice-chancellors about the coronavirus outbreak two weeks ago, we have seen universities finally act to end face-to-face activities and close down other operations. However, many employers are still struggling to acknowledge the scale of the crisis and the change that will be required for the sector to get through it.

What we have seen from a lot of universities is an undignified scramble to make staff transfer face to face teaching online; desperate attempts to secure income streams and plug holes in student admissions; and a widespread assumption that exercises like the REF and the NSS can continue as normal with only a few minor changes. 

We know we could be dealing with this pandemic for a year. The economic fallout will last even longer than that and will be felt in many different ways by the sector, its staff and students. Now is the time to demand an ambitious and concerted response from the government and from our institutions. 

Protecting precarious staff 

In my last email I mentioned that we were urgently seeking assurances that the government's job retention scheme, which aims to replace most of the wages of employees who cannot work, would be extended to employees and workers on short-term and/or variable or zero-hours contracts, and/or those who are classed as self-employed.

Since then I have had conversations about this with government representatives but we still have not received firm details or assurances. We have already made a joint submission to the treasury select committee with other trade unions on the measures which the government should take to support workers in these categories, and we will continue to push other trade unions and employers to campaign and lobby the government on this over the coming days. 

Securing financial sustainability 

We still have no assurances that the government will help universities cope with the financial consequences of what is happening. A shortfall in international student intake, and any uncertainty about domestic undergraduate admissions, could severely impact universities' income.

This crisis is highlighting the weakness of a funding system that relies on volatile income streams based on student recruitment. Although many universities have reserves that can help them weather the storm, employers are still likely to try to make staff weather it instead, by imposing further cuts and redundancies on top of those which we already experience on a regular basis. UCU continues to have success in fighting such measures - for example, we recently pressured the University of Portsmouth to suspend a number of planned redundancies and we will need to keep doing so as the outbreak worsens. 

The Office for Students has said that it will take steps to ensure the 'financial sustainability' of institutions. We have asked government officials for clarity about what this means and I will let you know as soon as we have an answer. UCU believes that the current funding system is not appropriate for higher education and we will be taking every opportunity over the coming weeks and months to push policymakers to consider more stable, fair, and economically sound alternatives. In the meantime we need the government to be ready to make significant financial interventions to protect staff and students during this crisis. 

Why our disputes still matter 

It is vital to remember that we are still in dispute with employers over a range of issues and those issues have not gone away. If anything, this crisis is further exposing and exacerbating them. The erosion of job security in universities and the intensification of workloads are all being compounded, as employers prepare to make further cuts in response to a potential recession while asking us to move to remote teaching, research and admin work at short notice.

74 branches are still taking action short of a strike (ASOS) up to the 28 April. It is important to send a message to our managers during this period: while we will help to mitigate the effects of this outbreak on our colleagues and students, we will not do so at the expense of our own well-being, and we are as determined as ever to change the way staff are treated in this sector. 

Suspension of strike deductions - a step in the right direction 

Some employers seem to be waking up to the fact that they cannot keep exploiting our goodwill, in this or any other situation. In the past few days, King's College London, Birkbeck, Southampton and Ulster have all agreed to waive or suspend their planned deductions of pay from staff who took strike action in February and March. Now is the time to ask your branch to make the same request to your employer - it is the least employers should be doing to recognise the efforts which staff are making to respond to the pandemic. 

Negotiations still taking place 

At the same time, negotiations with employer representatives are continuing despite the disruption. In particular, the larger packages of longer-term agreements and reforms we have been campaigning for are still very much up for negotiation. 

In our Four Fights dispute, we continue to correspond with the employer representative, UCEA, with a view to getting firmer commitments on how institutions will improve job security, equality, and workloads - progress has been slow and incremental but we are getting closer to an agreement that would improve on the offer which employers tabled at the end of January. In our USS dispute, employers have agreed to work with us on a joint submission to the USS trustee board, illustrating a potential approach to the 2020 valuation that could make the scheme viable over the longer term with no loss of benefits for members. They have also agreed to hold a phone conference with us on Friday to discuss other aspects of our dispute. None of this would be happening without our industrial action, and we have to keep remembering that even as we are understandably focused on the current emergency. 

Finally, don't forget to keep checking the new, dedicated Covid-19 section of our website. We have recently added guidance on your rights when working from home and teaching remotely and will be adding more guidance and resources in the coming days and weeks. 

Jo Grady
UCU general secretary

Last updated: 6 May 2022