In the news 1 May 2020

1 May 2020

Jo Grady sets out how universities and government must respond to Covid-19

Speaking to Research Professional today, Jo Grady said universities will be vital engines for our recovery and the government needs to underwrite income lost from student fees and teaching grants.

She warned that otherwise we risk a situation where universities will continue to compete in a dog-eat-dog world for domestic students. As well as being bad for staff and students, Jo said this would be catastrophic for university towns and cities. By contrast, she said that UCU's plan aims to protect everyone involved in higher education.

Jo condemned universities that have exploited Covid-19 to accelerate pre-planned cuts, especially where some have not even explored furloughing staff. She said that while UCU's immediate aim is responding to the threat of Covid-19, she wants to see an overhaul of how higher education is organised.

She argued that universities are continuing to expend their energy on marketing themselves and outdoing their competitors when they should be working together to make the sector more secure for everybody.


UCU continues to make the case for government funding to protect universities

Following last week's report by London Economics for UCU that showed universities face a £2.5bn black hole,  Sheffield Hallam University vice-chancellor Chris Husbands argued in the Times on Monday that that the sector needs a proper rescue package.

Husbands' intervention followed a weekend where both the Guardian and Financial Times made the case for a government bailout to defend universities.

Speaking to Chemistry World yesterday, UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: 'University science departments are leading the fight against Covid-19 and it is vital they are given support to continue their work. Without government support, all universities will face a serious financial hit. '


Universities UK's proposed number cap won't end recruitment battle

Jo spoke to Times Higher Education  earlier in the week about the problems with the number cap proposed by Universities UK (UUK) and universities continuing to compete with each other, rather than work together in the wider interest.

She was one of a number of experts who expressed concerns that the cap would not be enough to prevent instability in the sector as institutions will look to hoover up a smaller pool of recruits. She said: 'Even with the current unfolding crisis, universities are still itching to compete to recruit students.  The number cap simply shifts the financial pain around the sector.'


Government rejects accusations it is choosing which universities to support

Education secretary Gavin Williamson this week was forced to reject suggestions that the government is resisting a £2bn sector-wide bailout because it would prefer to choose which individual universities are given financial support.

Times Higher Education reported Williamson told the Commons education committee that his department was "working with the sector to pull together a package of measures" that would "preserve the stability of the whole sector", rather than focus support on any particular type of universities.

Williamson was forced to deny the government was seeking to pick and choose who received support after Labour MP Fleur Anderson asked the minister to address speculation that some parts of the government actually wanted an "admissions free-for-all or a Wild West...that would leave some universities more financially exposed".


University funding plea to help support key workers

MillionPlus and UUK have set out plans to try and secure government funding to support current and future key workers. It comes after UCU criticised UUK's original "piecemeal" proposals for not going far enough.

This proposal is targeted at healthcare, social work and teaching courses. It asks for a £10,000 maintenance grant and fee loan forgiveness for those who stay in their relevant profession for five years after graduation. It also wants to see an increase in funding streams linked to these subjects and a new Public Services in Higher Education capital fund, as well as a new professional development programme to enhance the skills of current key workers.

Writing in the Guardian today, MillionPlus chair Professor Rama Thirunamachandran fleshed out the proposal and reinforced the importance of universities as we try to recover from the crisis, concluding that: 'Now more than ever, Britain's universities are a crucial asset to the nation through our impact on local communities. These institutions and their students will be the beating heart of these towns and cities, as bit by bit, day by day, Britain begins to heal.'


Fall in staff wellbeing must be "wake-up" call for universities

The number of university staff being referred to occupational health and counselling has shot up in the past decade, warned a report from the Higher Education Policy Institute yesterday. The report showed a drop in staff wellbeing at all universities that provided data, with every institution showing increases in the number of staff accessing counselling and occupational health services.

Responding to the report, Jo Grady said: 'These figures must act as a wake-up call. Universities need to understand this is a real problem that must be dealt with, not excused or underplayed. Staff constantly go above and beyond, such is their commitment to their work and their students, and we have seen that again in their magnificent response to the Covid-19 crisis. But enough is enough.'

'As this report makes clear, stress, and its causes, are deep underlying problems that universities have failed to get to grips with. These issues were at the heart of our recent industrial action, have not gone away and must be an urgent priority for universities. It is time for universities to look beyond the short-term and work with us to properly deal with the increased workloads and stress levels that blight higher education.'


Student complaints on the rise

Student complaints surged to a record high last year, with dissatisfied students receiving more than £740,000 in refunds and compensation. ITV news said that the bulk of complaints were over academic appeals - such as problems with marking and final degree results - but that some did cite disruption caused by UCU's industrial action.

Jo Grady said: 'If you treat students like consumers and encourage them to behave like consumers then it is not that surprising they are more likely to complain if they are unhappy with the service being provided.

'We made clear from the outset that the strikes were only necessary because of universities' refusal to negotiate properly with us on key issues around working conditions, pay and pension. What has become increasingly clear to us is that students understand that our working conditions are their learning conditions, and the support they offered during the strikes was phenomenal.'


Covid-19 shows up UK universities' "shameful employment practices"

Writing in the Guardian on Tuesday, Professor Stefan Collini highlighted how "shameful employment practices" have been aggravated by the Covid-19 crisis. Collini used a UCU report on precarious work to show how more than half of university staff are on insecure contracts, and that the majority of these are women.

He brings to life the harsh reality of precarious contracts for so many university staff. He tells the story of the young woman who, the day after she had finished the final teaching assignment of a five-month contract, went to the university library to make a fresh start on her research, only to find that her library privileges had been withdrawn at midnight on the day of her last class. And how a one-semester teaching fellow had a word-of-mouth agreement with his manager about his hours and pay, only to discover at the end of his first month that the university's finance department insisted he be paid at a lower rate.

He argues that this lack of care towards staff from management demonstrates what has gone so wrong with many universities' employment practices. He does not expect improvements post-pandemic.


Locked down in lockdown: a prison educator's diary

Writing for Tes, a prison educator shared what it's like to be working in prison during the coronavirus pandemic.

They described a constant fear of getting coronavirus as statutory sick pay is only £94 a week. Miserable working conditions mean staff cannot protect themselves, as there is no soap, no disinfectant, and it impossible to maintain a two metre distance from prisoners.

They said that a colleague who had a panic attack was sent home on unpaid leave instead of getting statutory sick pay, after being told fear is not an illness. The educator painted a worrying picture of management insisting staff continue to come in, despite being unable to carry out their normal duties and how doing so is a clear risk to their health and that of others.


May Day message: thank and reward key workers

Jo Grady has co-signed today's May Day message from trade unions thanking the key workers that are keeping Britain going. The message says that this crisis shows how much we depend on frontline workers and argues that everyone who has kept Britain going deserves a pay rise.

The message has run as an advert in today's Daily Mirror and regional papers. It says that it's time to ban the zero-hours contracts and false self-employment that leave carers, shop workers and delivery drivers struggling.

It concludes that, while there are still tough times ahead, you need a union to have your back and urges people to join and union and encourage friends and family to join one as well.

Last updated: 4 May 2020