Students and workers unite to fight coronavirus

man wearing gray dress shirt and blue jeans

The return to campus has exposed the hollow moral core of Higher Education in the UK, but now students and workers must organise, if they are to challenge a system that puts profits above the health of its people.

Two student halls containing around 1,700 students have been forced into lockdown after 127 tested positive for coronavirus, at Manchester Metropolitan University. Detainees have been told they cannot leave their flats for any reason and guards have been employed to ensure that is the case. Eventualities like this one weren’t only a likelihood, but an inevitability when thousands of students from across the country are being moved into cramped halls during a second peak of a pandemic for no good academic reason when the vast majority of teaching will be online anyway.

The University and College Union (UCU), and other campus trade unions, have been warning for months that plans to resume face-to-face teaching on university campuses were inadequate and threatened the safety of staff and students, particularly those who are most at risk. Despite this, universities have continued with a message of, “If you can, come to campus for the best experience. If you can’t, don’t worry we are happy to take your fees regardless.” The result? Thousands of students paying a premium for their own imprisonment.

The trebling of tuition fees to over £9,000 pa. for home students, coupled with uncapped student numbers and withdrawal of direct government funding to HEI’s, means that universities must compete with one another to recruit more and more students, from home and abroad, to continually grow or face the risk of bankruptcy. Remaining stagnant is to die in the marketised HE system. They compete by offering the best and most complete education ‘product’ – the full student experience of lectures and seminars, or labs should you be so inclined. But there’s also being thrown into halls with strangers, comparing accents and A-Levels, before going out into town on your first night of proper freedom. And that’s without returning to your family home in a drunken stupor. 

There are, however, only a finite number of 18-year olds. As such, this model of constant growth has been propped up in recent years by convincing an ever-higher percentage of those 18-year olds that university is for them and by hyper-exploiting an international market desperate to access the UK’s elite HE brand. 

Whilst collapse was inevitable, as with any system reliant on perpetual growth in a finite world, the heat death of UK HE was always over there, far enough in the distance that there was a tidy profit to be made along the way – especially by private accommodation providers who are now dominating the skylines of major university towns and cities, offering cramped rooms in poorly-built tower blocks and ‘student experience’ in exchange for extortionate rents funded (largely but not exclusively) by the public purse through loans system. 

University staff haven’t been safe from the effects of marketisation either. Increased workloads, pay stagnation and increased casualisation have been some of the ways that university managers have tried to get the most for their money and protect their bottom line at the expense of the workforce, capitalising on their time and their financial security. Guaranteed outgoings like defined benefit pensions have been attacked and would’ve been replaced with pension schemes that put all of the risk on staff but for mass strike action in the 17/18 and 19/20 academic years.

Whilst this fees regime was always going to produce a small number of ultra-wealthy winning institutions and a large number of losers regularly on the precipice of insolvency, what was never accounted for was the second wave of a deadly pandemic peaking at the exact time students from all over the country would be moving into halls of residence. Despite warnings from campus unions, university managers have gone ahead with plans to include face-to-face teaching and the halls experience into their ‘product’ to reduce the number of students who may be tempted to defer their starts, and therefore their fee and rental income, to next academic year. 

But university bosses aren’t solely responsible for this calamitous start to the year. Successive neoliberal governments have created and reproduced the marketised system where it is always better for institutions to overpromise and underdeliver, where student recruitment is the primary means of income, and the advancement of knowledge through education – and the people essential to it – are tangential to a university’s success. 

What then, is to be done? First, it is essential that students recognise that crisis was inevitable in the marketised system of Higher Education, pandemic or no. The coronavirus pandemic has simply accelerated a slow decline and collapse of a system that sees students as numbers on a balance sheet.

Second, this is not only a student issue. Whilst the pandemic has removed the veil that obscured the transactional, consumerist relationship between students and institutions through continuing to extract rents without academic reason, staff are still at risk from a ludicrous commitment to face-to-face teaching that hasn’t been dropped in many cases. The treatment of education as a commodity has removed the ability of academics to teach as they please, with decisions being led by managers who have, in many instances, not even stepped foot into a seminar since their own time at university, to ensure that the student experience is standardised so as to be easily packaged and sold. This means that during the current crisis staff are unable to make decisions, like suspending face-to-face teaching, that maximise their own safety and the safety of students – and remove the mirage that has caused students to be crammed into halls in the first place.

Finally, students and workers must come together. The near-domination of the news cycle by the acute crisis faced by students at MMU has won the moral case but will do little to challenge authority and the continuation of a bankrupt(ing) fees regime that exploits workers and rips off students. Students and workers must organise to build material power and then leverage it in their own interests and the interests of a better education system.

They do this through getting ready to take drastic, but necessary, actions such as withholding rent payments and withdrawing labour on a massive scale, recognising the common interests that students and workers have in building a new university that focuses on education and the production of knowledge, not profit.

It is only the recognition that education is a public good, and a system organised around that notion, that will allow Higher Education to overcome catastrophe and flourish.

Charlie Porter is Campaigns for Students’ Director of Policy and Content.

You can follow Charlie on Twitter here: @Charliephobia

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