This blog was kindly written by Dr Diana Beech, outgoing Head of Government Affairs at the University of Warwick and former Policy Adviser to the last three Ministers for Universities
Universities are complex communities. Of course, there are the students that come to learn in them and the lecturers who teach in them. But there are also the senior management teams that provide strategy and direction and the professional service teams who deal with policy and regulation and much else besides.
Then there are the researchers, who devote their lives to pushing forward the frontiers of knowledge and the technicians who support them. There are also the industry partners who collaborate with them and the ‘spin-out’ inventors and entrepreneurs which arise from them.
On top of this, we must not forget the cleaners, cooks, security staff, shop assistants and baristas (to name but a few) that make campus life tick.
All these people and more form a vital part of university life. That is why, when it comes to determining how universities will operate this term, it is vitally important we adopt a ‘whole university’ approach that is in the best interests of the entire university ecosystem.
The latest call by the University and College Union (UCU) to move all teaching online in the face of rising numbers of coronavirus cases on UK university campuses is intended to protect the physical health of staff and students. Yet it also seems a setback to those members of staff whose livelihoods are reliant on in-person university activity.
Put bluntly, if students and academics are no longer coming to campus for face-to-face teaching, then it is difficult to justify keeping people in public service roles that are no longer viable – especially when many higher education institutions are facing heightened financial pressures from the ‘corona crunch’ anyway.
Throughout the summer, many UK higher education institutions have taken advantage of the Government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme to protect the jobs of exactly those people whose roles were made impossible during lockdown – when the number of people on campus dramatically reduced and university services like shops, cafes, libraries and sports facilities were unable to open.
Now, however, the furlough scheme is coming to an end just at a time when higher education institutions are starting to move up the scale of the Government’s tiers of restrictions. Some have moved up as a result of localised outbreaks while others are thinking ahead in anticipation of further restrictions. If this happens, then there is a very real risk that thousands of otherwise good jobs could be lost within universities and colleges up and down the country.
While most academic teaching staff can move their lectures and seminars online – in full acknowledgement of the added time and effort this requires – university staff in public service roles do not have that option. An end to their work on campus basically means an end to their valuable income streams – unless, of course, the Government agrees to a sector-specific extension of its furlough scheme to cover on-campus workers.
The people set to be most affected by any future job losses of this kind are largely those on the lowest pay grades, least likely to have a safety net of savings to fall back on, and even students themselves taking on part-time employment within institutions to fund living costs. (This is something I did in the latter stages of my PhD after finding work through my university temporary employment service.)
Jobs like these are not lesser jobs. They allow people to live, to develop their skillsets and to move on into future careers. They also help to form the beating heart of university campuses everywhere and are essential for ensuring community wellbeing – with cleaners and ‘front-of-house’ reception staff often the first to notice changes in student behaviour and detect downturns in mental health.
On this, it is important not to overlook what it is that students want from institutional responses to the pandemic too. After having just spent at least six months away from an in-person learning environment, it is no wonder that some students are fighting back against calls to move all teaching online – as just happened at the University of Warwick when a group of students sent an open letter to the Students’ Union rebutting its support of fully online learning for Term One.
It’s true: some students and staff will inevitably feel safer studying and working from home and higher education institutions have worked hard over recent months to make campuses COVID-secure, as well as to make provisions for those ‘sheltering’ to continue to do so. There should be no overlooking the fact that some in university communities are genuinely afraid to come on to campus now that the second wave of the virus has taken hold.
Yet, we should not deny the fact either that others regard in-person teaching as preferable for both their wellbeing and learning experience. This is particularly true for those enrolled on more practical and lab-based subjects, which are difficult to master remotely. It is also true for some disabled students, who have multiple concerns about moving fully online. ‘Warwick Enable’, a group representing disabled students at the University, point in the open letter mentioned above to increased difficulty processing information, increased concentration fatigue and increased risks to mental health.
So before beating the drum for a total move to online learning, we need to stop and think about the people this could be hurting on the ground and the effects this could have on both institutions and individuals for years to come. What is certain this term is that higher education leaders have an unenviable task ahead of them – trying their best to strike a balance between ensuring the physical health of all in their communities and those around them and protecting as many jobs in their organisations as possible.
There is no easy route through this pandemic. There are always going to be competing pressures on institutional leaders. But for as long as the Government expects higher education ‘providers’ to offer some sort of blended learning or face-to-face tuition under its first three tiers of restrictions, then it is in all our interests to work together to achieve a compromise – one which looks out for the whole university community and not just selected factions within it.
Diana takes over as CEO of London Higher on Monday.