As the COVID-19 rate soars, universities are due to welcome students back over the next few weeks. Boris Johnson has warned students not to gather in groups of more than six. This is good advice, with the slight problem that it won’t apply to either their seminar teaching or to those with whom they share their accommodation, which is where they will spend most of their time. Students and lecturers, and their respective unions NUS and UCU, are deeply worried that universities are unsafe, views that are supported by scientists from both the government’s own advisory group, SAGE, and scientists from Independent-Sage. UCU argue that teaching online is the only way to prevent unnecessary deaths. So what do universities themselves think?
Officially the line from UUK, the organisation that represents university management, is that institutions will be COVID-secure. Unofficially, something quite different has been acknowledged. Universities know that they are likely to spread COVID-19 by bringing students onto campus, but they also know that without this they will go bust.
The radical changes made to shift Higher Education funding from the taxpayer to student fees has done more than turn education into a commodity. It has also made universities financially vulnerable to such an extent that they cannot survive without the money from student fees and accommodation. I was recently in a meeting in which a member of Senior Management at my institution stated explicitly that the university would be in serious financial trouble if the students did not return. Incredibly, this person also admitted that it was ‘inevitable’ that there would be an outbreak of COVID-19 as a result of campus reopening. It was made clear in the meeting that this information was confidential and should not be shared with the public. The position of universities is publicly to claim that they are safe, but privately to acknowledge that this is impossible.
It will be financially ruinous to many institutions if the students don’t come back. It will be a quite different thing, however, if the students return and then are locked down in campus accommodation because of a COVID outbreak. The intention, then, is to lure students to campus by pretending that they will be safe and then, when an outbreak hits, to go online, as has already happened at dozens of institutions in the USA. Perhaps the biggest irony is that large numbers of university students moving around the country is risking another national lockdown, wrecking the economy for the second time in a year.
Why would universities do this rather than simply switch to online teaching now? The reason is simple. If an institution decides on its own to not give students what they have been promised (i.e face to face teaching) then it will face action from the Office for Students for failure to deliver the ‘product’ to consumers. The consequences would be a mass return of tuition fees and financial ruin. But if a university is forced by a local or national lockdown to go online, they will not have to pay this money back. And of course, if students are locked down after they have arrived on campus, they will also be paying for their accommodation, which is a vital revenue stream. Universities know that the above situation is likely, even inevitable. They know they are lying to students about campus being COVID-safe. It is important that students know this too.
The position of universities is fraudulent and utterly immoral: they are prepared to let people get ill and even die to keep themselves afloat. But perhaps we should not be too harsh on individual institutions, for really the problem is the system itself. If it is financially impossible for Higher Education to keep students and staff safe then something has gone badly wrong with our funding model. The consumerist system of Higher Education is leading us down a path that will inevitably lead to additional deaths. We need a radical rethink. University research provides public benefit and so it should be paid for, as schools are, through public taxation, progressively tiered so that the rich pay the most. Giving universities financial stability is the only way to ensure that they are not forced into a corner where they choose their own survival over that of their students and staff.
The author is a staff member at a university in England.