The government must protect universities in this crisis or job cuts will follow

Colleges and universities deliver vital opportunities and drive economic growth. Yet the current coronavirus crisis is now creating huge financial uncertainty in post-16 education.

As the general secretary of the University and College Union, I have today written to the government setting out a plan that will protect universities and colleges so they can play their full role in the recovery of our society and economy once the virus is defeated.

Hundreds of university staff to be made redundant due to coronavirus

Most importantly, the government must make a firm commitment to guarantee funding for institutions, protect jobs and rule out the closure of any college or university. Without these guarantees vital academic, educational and support staff will be lost – all of whom are incredibly expensive to try and replace.

Our excellent further and higher education systems are powered by an army of staff who do not have proper job security. Around 70% of researchers in universities are employed on fixed-term contracts, while more than 100,000 university teaching staff are also not permanent. In further education colleges nearly 20% of teachers are on a fixed-term contract and 25% are paid by the hour.

These staff are bearing the brunt of the wider financial uncertainty created by the virus. That’s why the government must guarantee all staff – including those on casual contracts – benefit from furlough arrangements. In the longer term, it should also commit to a review of the endemic casualisation of further and higher education.

We need to see colleges and universities work together, and with others, in the national interest. The government should insist that, in return for underwriting current funding, institutions accept a duty to work cooperatively to benefit students and our wider society. This means an end to the unseemly competition for students between institutions, which is both wasteful and unproductive, and will lead to even more financial instability.

This cooperation must extend to exams and assessment. It is increasingly clear that attempts to hold exams on a “business as usual” basis will have profound consequences for the fairness and equality of the process. While staff have been working hard to shift teaching online, the National Union of Students has rightly raised concerns about how all students can participate fully and fairly in exams.

Overambitious plans to resume operations in the autumn risk misleading potential students into believing a return to normal operations is imminent. Only a real partnership between all stakeholders, of the type recently agreed in the railway industry, can give students the certainty they need.

It is welcome news that the research excellence framework, which distributes government research funding, is to be postponed, along with Ofsted inspections in further education colleges. But the government should also cancel all other unhelpful forms of institutional assessment, including the teaching excellence framework, on a long-term basis.

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Delivering an economic recovery will require new thinking. One way of achieving this is to expand existing plans to increase skills. Research by the Social Mobility Commission has shown that almost half of people from the least wealthy classes have not undertaken any learning since leaving school, and participation in adult learning has been in freefall since 2010. The government should act now to develop a lifelong learning policy which focuses on reversing 20 years of cuts in adult education. This will benefit the economy and support those hit worst by the current crisis.

Action is urgent to protect our colleges and universities, so they can lead the recovery. Now is the time to turn decisively away from the market-driven madness of the past decade. We need a new mood of cooperation which puts students’ interests first, treats staff as something more than temporary help, and opens up opportunities for everyone in our communities.

  • Jo Grady is general secretary of the University and College Union

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