Coronavirus is intensifying the fault lines in UK higher education, and huge cuts are coming to our universities.
Universities are announcing job cuts and hiring freezes to mitigate the huge predicted loss of income from international students’ fees. Staff on casual, fixed-term or hourly paid contracts will be the hardest hit, and their workloads will be pushed onto permanent staff. Lots is still unclear.
On Sunday 24 May, Student Strike Solidarity held a meeting to discuss how students can organise with university workers to stop these cuts. We heard from activists involved in local campaigns to defend precarious staff and stop cuts at Edinburgh and Sussex Universities, Pandemic PGRs (postgraduate research students), Unis Resist Border Controls, and Cath Fletcher from Manchester Met University. Edinburgh and Sussex activists spoke about the need to set up “assemblies” and campaigns made up of all campus unions and students. At Sussex, the “Crisis Justice at Sussex” campaign of the local UCU, Unite and Unison was set up after the plan to cut all “non-essential” temporary or casual staff and freeze hiring for PhD students was leaked in March.
They are demanding:
• no cuts
• full pay during the pandemic regardless of contract or visa status
• the implementation of a 6:1 pay ratio between the highest and lowest paid member of staff (it is currently 17:1)
• transparency and full consultation on decisions made for the campus unions and students’ union.
Newly elected left-wing student union officers, elected on a ticket of student-worker solidarity, enter office this summer.
At Edinburgh, the Pandemic Precariat campaign of casualised workers and postgraduate students is raising similar demands, including:
• the extension of all casual contracts by two years to mitigate the impact of Covid-19 on staff
• a 5:1 pay ratio
• a £10 per hour minimum wage
• moves towards a reduction in working hours negotiated with the unions, such as a four-day week
• withdrawal from the Research Excellence Framework
• an end to monitoring of international staff and students
• an increase in mental health support services.
We discussed the need to ask where the wealth is in our universities and demand university managers open the books to show us who earns what, the reserves and property and other assets owned by the university, and the money is spent on things like marketing.
For example, Sussex University has over £300 million in unrestricted reserves. At Essex University, where hundreds of casual teaching jobs are being cut to make a £1 million saving, a freedom of information request revealed that £8 million is spent annually on the salaries of the 72 highest paid staff members (it is not clear if this includes the Vice Chancellor’s rent, which is paid by the university), and £3 million is spent on marketing.
Some Vice Chancellors, such as Imperial’s, are taking voluntary pay cuts. But at £554,000, she could take a 94% pay cut (not her actual 20%) and still earn more than an early career lecturer. Students can play a big role in demanding that any cuts come from the top, not from low-paid precarious workers’ jobs.
We agreed to hold a follow up practical organising meeting to discuss out in more detail ideas like experiences of bringing unions together on campuses, how we can campaign during the pandemic and how we can hold wider political discussions about education and our universities, and reach out to more and new students ready for the start of term when Freshers’ Fairs and other gatherings are unlikely to happen due to social distancing.
• To get involved email firstname.lastname@example.org or follow:
• Student Strike Solidarity
• Edinburgh Pandemic Precariat
• Crisis Justice Sussex
• Pandemic PGRs
• Unis Resist Border Controls — Mutual aid fundraiser for international students, many of whom have been left with no pastoral support from universities, no income and no recourse to public funds.