THE THREAT POSED TO UNIVERSITY WORKERS BY CORONAVIRUS HAS OFTEN BEEN OVERLOOKED IN THE PANDEMIC. BUT MANY STAFF IN HIGHER EDUCATION SAY THEY ARE BEING FORCED BACK INTO FACE TO FACE WORKING, EVEN IF THEY FEEL IT IS UNSAFE. NOW THEIR UNION, THE UCU, IS PREPARING FOR THE POSSIBILITY OF STRIKE ACTION TO ENSURE THE SAFETY OF BOTH ITS MEMBERS AND THE WIDER COMMUNITY. IN DOING SO, THEY ARE COMING UP AGAINST A DYSFUNCTIONAL SYSTEM BUILT AROUND TUITION FEES.
Since Autumn last year, a dispute has been growing in Cardiff university that is indicative of a wider conflict within the whole of higher education. It centres around workers being forced into unnecessary face to face working situations in the midst of a global pandemic, one which this week officially claimed the lives of 100,000 people in Britain.
According to Cardiff UCU, the union representing academic and academic-related staff at Cardiff University, they have received reports of workers with underlying health conditions such as asthma or diabetes, and those whose household members are in the moderate or high risk categories, being coerced into work on campus, including to undertake face-to-face teaching or tasks that they say could be done remotely.
Other incidents include workers being told to come onto campus from areas with high infection rates and managers even going against the advice of occupational health. Precarious staff, those on short term of near zero hour contracts, are even more susceptible to being pressured into scenarios they feel are unsafe.
In early September 2020, union members voted to oppose management forcing workers into such situations. But when the university didn’t accept that staff were being coerced into campus working, and refused to make a public commitment to say that this wouldn’t happen, Cardiff UCU lodged an official dispute on December 1st.
A recent poll of its members, held to assess the mood for action if a proper ballot was held, found that 59% of those who took part would vote for strike action and 77% for action short of a strike. “These results show that members are prepared to take action to defend each other against forced face-to-face campus work during the pandemic,” the union said.
Universities have been at the forefront of the battle over non-essential working during the pandemic, where sites that do not need to operate have remained open during lockdown. The recent Coronavirus outbreak at the DVLA in Swansea, including the news of one worker dying after contracting the virus, brought home the danger of forcing people back to work too soon. The risk of spreading the virus in a university setting is clear given the size of campus populations and level of interaction.
Despite this, however, university managers have been keen to re-open institutions even when it might not be safe. This has led to accusations of them putting money, and specifically tuition fees, over safety.
The union say they are in dispute with Welsh Government and university management over the return to face to face teaching. Photo, Tom Davies
The crisis has brought into sharp relief the long-term effects of the neoliberal re-organisation of the university and how incapable the model is of dealing with a health emergency. The financialisation of institutions has meant that many universities simply would not countenance a year where very few courses would run as normal if it meant their income would take a hit.
Instead, they have desperately tried to keep the show on the road in order to justify the huge fees their students are being charged. They have often talked about students receiving the same standard of education as in previous years, even though this is simply not possible.
But the pressure created by the fees system as well as the recent surge in Coronavirus cases is now boiling over. Many workers are simply not prepared to put their health and possibly their lives at risk for work that they say can be done remotely.
In this fight for basic safety, however, Welsh Government has also come under heavy criticism.
Cardiff UCU says that the Welsh Government toolkit – which has the aim of identifying and protecting vulnerable workers – falls far short of what is required. The union says that it identifies someone with up to three underlying conditions as “low risk,” and allows employers to call staff to workplaces even if they fall into the “high risk” and “very high risk” categories.
“I was appalled with the Welsh Government guidelines and their risk assessment toolkit for workers. It falls so short of actually protecting workers,” says Renata Medeiros Mirra, the anti-casualisation officer for Cardiff UCU, and a lecturer of Statistics.
She says the guidelines have been kept intentionally vague to allow businesses to decide whether to make staff work, even if they are at high risk.
“There is a high probability of encountering infected students and staff at some point, even with wearing masks and trying to keep the distance, there is obviously a risk involved… that apparently the university [is] willing to take, even in instances when work could be done remotely” Renata explains. “It takes only one student or one staff member to die from COVID for us to realise or ask ourselves if it’s worth it?”
Cardiff University workers in the UCU strike in early 2020. Photo, SC Cook
For workers in the most precarious roles, the pressure to return to work is often far greater. Cardiff University employs some workers on contracts of just two hours per year, allowing them to say they don’t use zero hours contracts whilst still exploiting staff.
A casual, hourly-paid worker at Cardiff University agreed to share their experience on the condition of remaining anonymous.
“We feel ignored and dismissed partly, I think, because casual staff are seen as easily replaced,” they said.
They explain that it took months for casual contract workers to get furlough, and it was only received in the end after the UCU got involved. They say that concerns raised in meetings with management are rarely acted upon and meetings are not recorded or noted.
“Safety is a long story, but our room is very small, five people in a room that is only two metres wide at one end,” the account reads. “We can’t socially distance due to the nature of the teaching but endeavour to keep safe. We have asked for a larger room. Our risk assessment wasn’t site specific and very general.”
The workers also say that some staff have had problems with receiving their pay and that they also found out recently about contact with a positive COVID case in the University, but there was no system in place to quickly make other staff aware of this.
Another worker describes how despite being asthmatic, they are expected to commute for up two hours on public transport as they do not drive.
“I have not been given the option of not teaching on campus,” they write.
Cardiff University main building, photo, Tom Davies
Many of the problems thrown up by the pandemic come back to the neoliberal restructuring of higher education, and specifically high tuition fees.
If universities were only doing online teaching, this could cause many students to defer until the pandemic is over or not enrol in the first place. But the financial model of universities now depends on competing for fee paying students and lucrative research contracts. This is in order to sustain institutions run along corporate lines, where top ‘executives’ earn huge sums of money.
“I think what university managers need to do is to detach themselves from their fat salaries, and their CEO statuses, and stand up with staff and students in requesting for a bailout, and really start campaigning for the end of the tuition system fees and for public universities, because that’s what we all need. The crisis has really illustrated that, if it wasn’t already obvious,” says Renata.
“The tuition fee system is pernicious and inefficient, and that’s become obvious on many levels,” she continues. “About 80% of students will never pay back their full loan, which means that it’s the government and taxpayers’ money that pays their loans and interest. So instead of the money going directly to universities from the government, it goes through these loaning companies who profit off it. And it’s just completely crazy”
The rampant inequality created by the higher education system was laid bare last week when the union revealed that by the 20th January 2021, the university vice chancellor Colin O’Riordan had earned more in 20 days than the lowest paid worker would get in a year. His salary is £294,000 per year.
At the same time, students are being saddled with enormous debts. “It’s the fact that we are bringing these young people into the working world with a debt hanging over their heads forever, if these people never pay in full it means that they have a debt for 30 or 40 years hanging over their heads,” Renata explains.
She says she’s certain that if the universities were not dependent on the students for their finances, “the decision would have been from the start that any teaching that can be done remotely, should be.”
“We are seeing a lot more pressures in terms of workload, because tuition fees are what brings in the money, and therefore we need more students to keep the university financially stable,” says Renata.
The whole system, however, is bad news for students as well, who’s education is cut back in order to maximise income.
“More students and less staff are the best kind of financial arrangement for the university. But then obviously, it’s bad for students, and it’s bad for staff,” explains Renata. “I think the education levels have gone down tremendously since tuition fees were increased. I think even internationally, the UK has lost some of the reputation that it had for providing high quality education. “
Cardiff UCU are still in talks with the university to stop workers being forced onto campus when it’s not necessary. But if management does not take adequate steps to ensure the safety of all its staff and students, as well as stopping the spread of the virus in general, indications are that workers would be prepared to take strike action.
Ultimately, Renata believes it could be an opportunity for staff and students to come together and bring about real change. “I hope we can all push for a better system together”, Renata says.
Voice Wales article works and images by Tom Davies, BA Photojournalism. Edited by Seb Cooke, Voice Wales.