Labour must listen to trade unions on the reopening of universities

From September, universities across the country will begin to welcome new undergraduate students. This reopening will involve the mass movement of nearly one million students. Without robust scrutiny from the opposition, we risk universities becoming key sites of transmission driving a second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, whilst Labour risks the trusts of students and university workers.

Even before the sacking of Rebecca Long-Bailey, the Labour leadership moved to triangulate its position on school reopening and distance itself from education unions. The result? Being embarrassingly outflanked by celebrities and the government while risking the trust of the vast majority of parents, teachers and students who supported a more cautious approach.

With ‘freshers’ flu’ already a feature of the return to universities, maintaining social distancing will be difficult enough even without the commitment of many universities to provide face-to-face teaching. Students live within wider communities – often within working-class ones – and the risk of virus transmission is therefore elevated. University managements are gambling the health of students, workers and the local community for meagre fee income.

Many union branches that have assessed their universities’ plans for reopening are pushing for further action to maintain social distancing, including more extensive mask wearing and remote learning for all teaching possible. UCU has urged the government to observe the advice set out by Independent SAGE in their recent report on university reopening and the risk of Covid-19, which calls for remote learning by default – with masks being required when any in-person teaching does take place.

The NUS has found that students are most comfortable returning to education if taught exclusively online and are similarly pushing for no in-person teaching unless absolutely necessary, with mass testing and clear guidance for building safe and healthy new student households. Facing the harshest recession for 100 years, widespread unemployment and wage cuts, now more than ever students need substantive living maintenance grants to support this and maintain social distancing.

Further support – including an overhaul of punitive university assessment systems and serious investment in adequate and appropriate health support – is essential in particular for students with health conditions that make them clinically vulnerable to Covid-19. Alongside this, significant investment will be needed in local student transport links alongside a thorough and comprehensive track and trace system on every university campus and in every university community.

While precarious staff disproportionately carry out face-to-face teaching, cuts to the pay and jobs of casualised workers has left universities poorly prepared to provide genuinely socially distanced education to an increased number of students. In this context, the reckless push we’ve seen from university vice-chancellors across the country to deliver in-person teaching come what may speaks to the extent to which the sector has been hollowed out by marketisation. With degrees conceptualised as products at risk of losing their value from remote learning, the prioritisation of revenue raising over student welfare in the running of our universities is now a national public health risk.

It is critical that the Labour Party gets ahead of this issue, scrutinises the government and demands remote learning by default to avert a perfect storm of cuts, marketisation and pandemic threat. Further, Labour’s response should be to highlight the underlying problems in the higher education sector and address them by proposing a shift to public funding, free education and democratised institutions run in the interests of staff and students. Some MPs have already been pushing these demands in conjunction with staff and student unions. We must be pressing all Labour MPs to represent the concerns and demands of local university workers to university senior managements.

Liberals and conservatives seek to portray the trade union movement as representing special or sectional interests, but the political strength of the Labour Party comes from an understanding that it’s people in their places of work and study who understand the work process and the risks of their work environments better than bosses or senior management. It’s the connection to this movement that roots the Labour Party in the interests of the organised working class. Working in step with the trade union movement and giving a voice in parliament and the country to its demands is the only viable political strategy open to any Labour leadership that is serious about rebuilding trust with working-class communities.

Published in LabourList, 31st August, 2020

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