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We have now seen more than 27,000 cases of Covid at universities since the government told students it was safe to return to campus. We cannot let this disaster be repeated in January. That is why the University and College Union (UCU) has launched a legal challenge over Westminster’s decision to ignore advice from its own Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) and let students return to campus.
Sage advised several weeks ago that as much university teaching as possible should shift online to help contain the pandemic. UCU has been saying the same for months, but our pleas have fallen on deaf ears as institutions across the UK have peddled the myth that students could expect a relatively normal university experience.
Thousands of students are now being confined to their accommodation while much learning is delivered online. Instead of putting the steps in place now for students to safely leave their residences as soon as possible, the government has proposed to keep them at university for the whole term, and then make them self-isolate for two weeks before they return home for Christmas.
Once students are home, we cannot allow the government to repeat this farce next term. We hope the legal action we launched last week will stop the government making the same mistakes and unleashing a new wave of infections.
If you believe the rhetoric about recent governments’ changes to higher education, they are all about helping students to make more informed choices in a marketplace where institutions compete to offer the best educational “product”.
But the pursuit of more choice for students has led to poor choices by providers, as the competition to attract students and the income from their fees has driven some deeply unethical behaviour. This has included the explosive growth of unconditional offers, building projects and marketing budgets at many institutions, and a corresponding reduction in the proportion of university income spent on staff.
During the pandemic, that narrow focus on recruitment has taken an even more sinister turn. The sector’s received wisdom was that shifting to online delivery would hurt enrolments, so institutions pressed ahead with an in-person offer. Even in the midst of a global health crisis, health and safety was a secondary concern.
Now, as the clamour among students for fee refunds grows louder, universities find they are in a tricky spot: under pressure from the regulator not to dismiss these requests, but financially ill-equipped to respond to them. Around half the sector’s income comes from tuition fees and other student-linked income like accommodation fees. Even partial fee refunds would be financially painful for institutions.
The government’s dogged insistence on following the diktat of the market has made the crisis much worse. It is clear we need a new model for higher education.
In the short term, that means the government supporting students who decide that the reality of campus life in the time of Covid isn’t for them. It means underwriting any income universities lose as a result of students cancelling accommodation contracts, deferring or dropping out. And it means investing more in mental health support and careers advice services so both staff and students are properly supported to navigate the current situation. That is what we need to deal properly with campus outbreaks and neutralise the risk of a third Covid wave.
In the longer term, we need a more fundamental rethink.
Covid has exposed the precariousness of a system built on fees. We need stable, long-term direct funding that empowers institutions to innovate and take healthy risks, rather than dangerous gambles.
The current funding approach isn’t saving the taxpayer money compared with the system it replaced. It has failed all the tests of economic efficiency and intellectual merit, and now it has failed the most important test of all: whether it enables universities to keep staff and students safe.
It’s time for the government to fund the future in a way that promotes flexibility for students, security for staff, stability for the sector, and safety for all.
• Jo Grady is the general secretary of the University and College Union
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: The government must support students stuck in Covid nightmare at universities | Students