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In the news 24 April 2020

24 April 2020

Report warns of a £2.5bn black hole for universities due to Covid-19

The Covid-19 pandemic and ensuing recession will lead to 111,000 fewer UK and 121,000 fewer international first-year students attending UK universities this year, resulting in a £2.5bn funding black hole, warns a report, by London Economics for UCU.

The report, which was widely covered by the media, including the BBC, ITV, the Guardian and the Times, shows that the universities hit hardest by the falls in fee and grant income are those that cater for significant numbers of international students.

The report warns that, without government intervention, an estimated 30,000 university jobs are at risk, with a further 32,000 jobs under threat throughout the wider economy. The total economic cost to the country from reduced economic activity by universities is estimated at more than £6bn.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: 'Our world-renowned universities are doing crucial work now as we hunt for a vaccine and will be vital engines for our recovery both nationally and in towns and cities across the UK. It is vital that the government underwrites funding lost from the fall in student numbers. These are unprecedented times and without urgent guarantees, our universities will be greatly damaged at just the time they are needed most.'


Pressure on government for financial protection increases in light of UCU report

Writing in the Guardian, Jo Grady set out the case for a government bailout to protect universities. She said that universities were a vital and unique part of society with an importance that far outweighed their considerable economic value. She said universities would need to play in the UK's post-virus recovery and that rebuilding the economy with a damaged university sector would be like choosing to do it with one tied arm behind our backs.

Following the release of the UCU report, a Guardian editorial said a university bailout to solve the short-term funding crisis would allow universities to play their part in the national recovery as major employers and as hubs of science, culture and ideas.

While the Financial Times said universities needed special financial support because higher education is one of the few sectors where the UK remains a world leader. It highlighted how universities are a core component of the social and cultural capital of the country and that it made more sense to maintain them than to attempt to replace them after the crisis.


No university should go bust due to Covid-19 says Labour

Labour has echoed UCU's call for the government to underwrite higher education to prevent institutions from going bankrupt. Times Higher Education reported that shadow universities minister Emma Hardy wrote to her counterpart warning that universities were not just businesses and should not be treated as such.

Hardy said: 'Universities provide value to our country every day, supplying final year medical students to fight on the frontline of our NHS, creating PPE, and providing accommodation for key workers.'

She had previously argued that Covid-19 had exposed the failures of the marketisation of higher education. In an opinion piece for Research Professional, she highlighted UCU's concerns about the "continued unseemly competition between institutions" set out in the union's  letter to education secretary Gavin Williamson earlier this month. That letter set out seven proposals to ensure universities and colleges could retain academic capacity now and help build for the future.


Universities condemned for mistreating staff during Covid-19

The Universities of Portsmouth, Kent and Sussex were highlighted by Times Higher Education for their poor treatment of staff during the Covid-19 crisis. The magazine said that in every sector there are examples of employers doing their best to protect staff in the wake of the coronavirus − but stories also abound of those who have shown little regard for their employees' welfare.

The University of Portsmouth came under fire for pushing ahead with plans to sack eight English literature lecturers; the University of Kent has only stalled a redundancy exercise; and the University of Sussex has called for the "review of all temporary agency staff arrangements".

Jo Grady said: 'Covid-19 has shown just how vulnerable the sector is and how reliant universities are on student fees, particularly international fees but if we find a vaccine or we train more doctors and nurses − that comes from universities, they and their staff have to be properly funded.'


University of Manchester under fire for job loss plans

The University of Manchester has been criticised for threatening staff with job losses and pay cuts in response to the Covid-19 crisis. In an email to staff, the university said it is considering a range of cost-cutting measures. UCU said it recognised that universities could face potential financial problems, but urged Manchester to halt its swift plans to cut jobs and pay, and work with the union to secure vital government support.

Speaking to the Guardian, UCU regional official Martyn Moss said: 'We are disappointed the University of Manchester has acted with such haste to threaten these drastic measures, especially when staff have adapted so impressively to the current crisis to support students and the university. Instead of short-sighted cuts, we need the sector to pull together and make the case for vital funding to safeguard the future of our universities.'


Durham University halts controversial plans to provide online-only degrees

Durham University has retracted plans to slash face-to-face teaching after strong opposition from UCU. The university had wanted to slash face-to-face teaching by as much as 25% and outsource its online learning to private providers. The BBC, Guardian, and Times all reported the opposition to the plans.

Speaking ahead of the Senate meeting where the plans were withdrawn, Jo Grady said: 'Durham needs to halt these plans. The fact there has been no consultation with staff or students is unacceptable and we will continue to defend the quality of education staff provide and our members' jobs.'

Speaking to the Guardian after the plans were withdrawn, Jo said: 'The best way to ensure universities offer the best for students is to work with us and ensure any changes are led by staff, not imposed from above.'


Close down the exam factory

Writing for Tes, UCU further education committee vice-chair, Sean Vernell argues that the unprecedented change in how students are taught and assessed due to the Covid-19 crisis offers us a chance to break out of the exam mindset and move away from a system that has failed our young people.

He says the obsession with testing everything through exams has led to a narrowing of what we teach and what our students learn. The critical thinking, independent learning and research skills of young people have been severely weakened by an education system structured around testing and examinations.

He concludes that when we emerge out of this dreadful coronavirus crisis, we need to rethink our education system, removing the stultifying exam-based assessment model and replacing it with a model that allows our students to reclaim their critical and independent thinking skills.


Concerns about online lectures abuse and security

Concerns have been raised in the Guardian that the switch to remote learning during the coronavirus lockdown is leading to increases in harassment at UK universities. Experts have called on universities to do more to improve security after a number of abusive, sexist and racist incidents during online lectures.

Several universities have taken disciplinary action against students for posting abusive images in lectures hosted on the Zoom video app, according to Aisha Gill, professor of criminology at Roehampton University.

National Union of Students women's officer Rachel Watters said: 'The sudden shift to mass online learning on new platforms has revealed weaknesses in policy and practice in relation to online misconduct and harassment. NUS urges institutions to safeguard students and staff using video conferencing, and to hold perpetrators accountable through disciplinary procedures.'


Last updated: 1 May 2020