Universities and the coronavirus: Questions of leadership

Mike Finn (@punk_academic)

As the novel coronavirus pandemic has swept the world, it has inevitably become a political question. This is no less true of universities in Britain than in any other area. There are real, and immediate, challenges for institutions that often have tens of thousands of students from a wide range of locations in residential accommodation, many of whom will have underlying conditions, not to mention thousands of HE workers, again with many in at-risk groups (including this author).

On the brief interlude from strike action last Friday, this was brought home to me as students struggled into class with coughs, visibly ill, because in the anxiety machine that is the contemporary university they were understandably worried about their assessments. In the Johnsonian world of ‘taking it on the chin’, this is where we’re at.

Universities have seen weeks of strike action because staff are at breaking point. And as yet the employers have failed to end the disputes. The pandemic is now here, and there is no clarity on what employers want to do, with university ‘leadership’ once again hanging on the state’s every word, even as epidemiologists within their own institutions have clear advice to offer. Expertise in the contemporary university is, sadly, frequently ignored.

For its part, the state’s response to the epidemic has been increasingly criticised by epidemiologists and senior medical figures. Yesterday morning, the editor of The Lancet openly stated what many had suspected – that the government’s claim to ‘be following the science…is not true’. As someone with a political communications background, the dissonance between the messages last week was significant.

The set-piece on Tuesday outlining the ‘battleplan’, the Whitty comments a couple of days later stating that Britain was now ‘mainly in the delay phase’, and then the rowback from that ever since, with social distancing measures condemned as ‘populist’ by a (typically) unnamed ‘senior government source’. Today we finally seem set for the ‘delay’ phase, though whether that means the scale of measures we have seen elsewhere remains unclear.

A good thing about being an HE worker now is that you know experts, however much the government despises them. And that means you will always know someone, who knows someone who is an epidemiologist. Speaking to said epidemiologist last night ahead of writing this, they were staggered that the government hadn’t implemented social distancing measures, including closing schools and universities.

The news yesterday that the government has elected to rely on the Nudge Unit over epidemiologists fits with the Dominic Cummings mode of governance, which eschews ‘traditional’ disciplinary expertise in favour of ‘innovators’. The problem is a unit developed to deal with late payment of taxes and benefit issues might not be the best option. The fact that the unit is still concerned with preventing skiving during the epidemic is telling about the government’s priorities. And none of it tops you up with confidence, as a government minister tests positive, and a cabinet minister, staff in a government department, and other MPs have to self-isolate. The Prime Minister refuses to be tested. The media has struggled (some less generous individuals would say not bothered) to hold government to account, which is par for the course in contemporary Britain.

Which brings us back to our own workplaces, universities. If the government won’t act, what should we do?

Part of the problem is the way the discourse of ‘leadership’ is omnipresent in higher education, fostered by the wonk revolution which displaced real expertise from governance in universities in favour of pseudo-technocrats who masquerade as ‘disruptors’ and ‘innovators’. Vice-Chancellors are styled as ‘leaders’, when, as in theory with the premiership, they were once primus inter pares, first among equals.

You can overly romanticise the past, and we often do. But leadership hasn’t previously been venerated in universities and without the way it is now. You don’t have to be a Marxist to recognise a classic capital-labour dynamic at play in the modern university. That’s why, after all, we’re on strike.

But the supposedly the rise of ‘leadership is necessary’ in a global marketplace; to be competitive, universities need the best leaders, they need to be highly-remunerated, and those pesky HE workers have to become ‘agile’ and ‘responsive’.

The problem is as the dispute has shown, and as Covid-19 is further illustrating, VCs don’t lead. Not in any meaningful sense, anyway. The ‘my hands are tied’ line is a tired one; on the one hand UUK/UCEA saying they are bound by their members, on the other the VCs claiming that their ‘hands and tied’ but by UUK/UCEA. No-one leads, but the VCs consistently argue it would all be so much better if only we didn’t have national bargaining. You know what they’re thinking: ‘or unions’.

There are cases of coronavirus now at a number of UK universities. None have closed, even as their peers abroad have elected to do so, with Harvard going online-only on its own initiative. They have been in consultation with the Office for Students, but the sense is they are waiting for a shutdown order. This is learned helplessness, and reflects the universities’ real relationship with the state for all the rhetoric about autonomy and independence.

In the meantime, though numerous universities have taken specific measures (e.g. banning travel abroad for conferences), there has been little in the way of reassurance or guidance for students and staff with immunosuppression or underlying health conditions. The WHO says avoid crowds. Try doing that at a large university at changeover, with twice-to-four times as many students as buildings are designed for jammed into the thoroughfares and hallways.

UCU branches are – as ever – pushing the employers on this, with their Health and Safety Reps seeking answers from institutions and branch motions being passed which condemn the recent rise in racist attacks associated with the coverage of the coronavirus epidemic, in addition to demanding that universities take measures to protect staff and students, and don’t try to manipulate the crisis to force yet more work out of staff who are already at breaking point.

The rhetoric about switching to online-only says a lot of things; firstly that employers have very little understanding, as some have pointed out, that things can’t carry on as normal in a pandemic – it’s just how it is – secondly, that it simply isn’t feasible for many disciplines, and thirdly that staff aren’t going to do additional work to do it when they’ve been fighting a workload dispute. It just isn’t going to happen. This is a colossal failure of leadership – the draconian behaviour of employers in recent times has eviscerated goodwill in what used to be communities. They have divided us on lines of overpaid employer and expendable staff. When the Russell Group belatedly recognised that the health of casualised staff was an issue, they did so only in fear of ‘reputational damage’. We remain expendable.

Some employers have already played fast and loose politically with the crisis, with the aim of undermining the strike, in one case threatening a branch distributing flyers whilst still allowing students to go to the gym. Bad faith isn’t going to make what comes next any easier.

So UCU is taking the lead, as it has done on pay, pensions, the gender pay gap, casualisation, and workload. As someone who thinks we as HE workers should run the universities ourselves, this is no bad thing. But in the current situation there are limits on what branches alone can do. Which brings us back again, to the official ‘leadership’ in our sector. It certainly hasn’t been at a discount in financial terms in British universities, as we know only too well, even if is often non-existent in other areas.

But the employers are right about one thing; these disputes need to end. Where they’re wrong is in who needs to end them. They need to end these disputes now purely and simply for their own sake, standfast coronavirus and Covid-19. But they also need to restore credibility and trust if we are to have confidence in them for what’s coming.

A fair and decent settlement would be a start.

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