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Coronavirus Exposes Class Conflict in Britain’s Universities

In response to coronavirus, the University of Essex has announced plans to cut temporary posts while leaving the six-figure salaries of its management intact. It sums up the class divide running through Britain's universities.

The current pandemic and the public health crisis is having a grave impact on academic activities across the globe. In the UK, it is brutally exposing the frailties at the heart of the neoliberal university. Universities, riddled with debts and over-reliant on the income from tuition fees, are finding their funding models unsustainable – and some may even be close to collapse. 

As you read this, senior managers, in comfortable homes and on more than comfortable salaries, will be meeting over Zoom to decide the fate of their universities, staff and students. The emergency budgets they pass will have very little input from trade unions, who many have longstanding practices of opposing, or from student representatives. Yet, they are likely to have major impacts on their lives.

The University of Essex is one of the first to confirm that there will be cuts and not just “freezes.” And, with grim predictability, it’s been temporary academic posts that have been the first under the knife. Among these are the graduate teaching assistant posts, roles which subsidise deeply inadequate scholarships (for those lucky enough to have one). 

Unsurprisingly, salaries for high-paid managers are to remain untouched. Take-home pay for top-tier management has mushroomed in recent years. Over 70 staff at the University of Essex earn more than £100,000 per year. The Vice-Chancellor is one of the highest paid in the country, earning £299,000 and enjoying rent-free housing and private medical insurance. A useful reminder that the modern university is also a site of class struggle.

These latest cuts will have the effect of drastically deepening inequalities on campus. They also expose the public relations industry around universities and their workplace practices. In 2018, the University of Essex was awarded ‘University of the Year’ and praised for, among other things, putting the needs of staff and students first. What a difference two years makes.

PhD students at the University of Essex are now mobilising to demand that the university reassess its decision. They are backed by teaching staff as well as the University and College Union (UCU) which has launched a petition, calling on the university to safeguard jobs.

“The University management is in a very difficult position, but rather than cutting the jobs of some of the most vulnerable teaching staff, it could be looking for savings among some of its more privileged staff, including the professoriate and highest-paid professional services employees,” said Linsey McGoey, a professor in the Department of Sociology.

University managements have a choice: they can respond to the coronavirus crisis by getting rid of their most precarious staff (both academic and non-academic workers) or they can fight to defend higher education. Even before the pandemic, terms and conditions for university workers were under attack – how management responds to this crisis will determine whether this process will soon be on steroids.

Just weeks ago, workers in higher education were on strike. The UCU’s broad ranging action – waged over ‘four fights’ in pay, equality, workload and casualisation – was an indication of how deep the problems in the sector run. And it followed a similar action in 2018 over pensions, which remains a live issue.

If, or perhaps when, the government bails out the UK’s university sector, workers must fight for funding to be provided on terms that benefit workers and local communities, not the highly-paid senior managers or predatory property developers. 

Teaching is a crucial part of the education and training required for PhD students to progress in their academic careers. In an already squeezed academic job market, denying PhD students teaching experience will result in many simply being overlooked during recruitment processes.

Not only will graduate teaching assistants be left without pay next year. When they eventually attempt to enter the academic jobs market (if such a thing still exists), they will be at a huge disadvantage. The result of coronavirus may well be that universities wealthy enough to make no cuts at all will be the only ones able to turn out the most qualified junior academics – further entrenching inequalities within the sector. 

There are also fears that the financial pressure caused by job cuts will exacerbate the crisis of mental health in the sector. A recent global study conducted among PhD students found that more than one-third had sought help for anxiety or depression caused by their PhD studies.

Cutting temporary teaching positions will place even more pressure on permanent staff. Overwork is a serious occupational health hazard in higher education. In 2018, a lecturer at Cardiff took his own life. His widow later discussed the pressure Malcolm Anderson had been under at work – he was expected to mark 418 exam papers in just 20 days. 

This pandemic has brought home the essential role universities play in society, with their workers now at the forefront of the global efforts to produce a vaccine for Covid-19. But they aren’t just centres of research, they’re often the largest employer in a city or even in a region. If they’re left to fail, or if cuts are made that penalise their lowest-earning staff, many thousands will suffer. 

This crisis is an opportunity to reassess the purpose of higher education. Universities are publicly-funded spaces of learning that ought to pursue the common good, but the marketisation of higher education has enriched a small number at public expense. 

It’s time for management and the government to reflect on the failures of the marketised model – which is forcing staff to take industrial action and undermining the quality of teaching available to students. The neoliberal university is under stress, we must make sure that what comes next is better and not worse.