Expendable assets: Staff and students in the pandemic university (long read)

On Friday a letter appeared in The Times – signed by ‘100 leading academics’ no less – advocating ‘a return to face-to-face teaching as soon as possible’, making clear its signatories’ rejection of UCU’s position that wherever possible, teaching in the forthcoming university term should take place online.

The Times probably wouldn’t always recognise all of the signatories as leading academics, but this time said academics are agreeing with their editorial line (which as per, is the same as government policy – free press klaxon – and the employers’ desires) so play on. (As a sidenote, much as I might wish to be the leading British historian I was once described as by Russia Today when I said something about British foreign policy which must have appealed to the Kremlin, saying it does not make it so.) If The Times – which has spent much of the last four years aggressively trashing university-based expertise – suddenly has a fondness for a particular brand of it, you’ve a right to be sceptical.

The Spiked alumni featuring prominently amongst the letters signatories give an indication of its provenance, though its catchment is clearly wider than them, and whilst some are doubtless sincere true believers in the essential need for in-classroom teaching, the presence of IEA alumni in addition to the Spiked cohort says a lot. I was intrigued to learn though that the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Buckingham is a UCU member. Perhaps academia isn’t quite the Marxist hotbed The Times thought it was last week. Or maybe my anarcho-Marxist-antifa comrades at Buckingham are (to quote Axel Foley in Beverly Hills Cop II) deep, deep undercover.

But aside from poking fun at the letter’s authors, which I’ll allow myself as an indulgence given my ongoing 2020 battle for sanity, the letter is a point of departure here for some reflections on where we are as term looms. At my institution welcome week – or freshers’ – kicks off a week today. Students will be onsite, in accommodation, and I’ve already had requests from students to meet in person. I was in a shielding category before the government decided that those shielding had magically developed invulnerability to coronavirus, so am not returning to campus and will continue to work from home – which is a privileged position and I know it. But the majority of my colleagues are going back ‘in’; so the letter is plain wrong in the first place. Whatever UCU called for last weekend, the reality is that call was late in the day – too late – and the vast majority of institutions in the UK fully intend to offer face-to-face in-class teaching. So on the level of reality rather than rhetoric, the letter’s authors are tilting at a windmill; most of them presumably will be back in classrooms in a week or two’s time – so they can relax, even if the rest of us can’t.

It will be interesting however to see how the authors of the letter will be able to deliver on their promises, just as it will be for universities in general. Students up-and-down the country are being promised by Universities UK a quality ‘student experience’, with learning onsite and meaningful experiences beyond the classroom. Yet pedagogically, colleagues I speak to more-or-less everywhere are scratching their heads at how this is actually going to happen. In a number of universities, seminars are to be taught in lecture theatres to enable social distancing; students (and sometimes lecturers) will wear masks. Group work in these settings, a staple of seminar teaching, particularly for project-based modules, becomes extremely difficult if not impossible. No sitting around a laptop or a text together; masks will make communication, particularly over distance, more difficult. By contrast, Zoom with breakout groups seems relatively straightforward and without any risk.

Some colleagues are even reporting they have had to redesign their modules to implement more didactic elements to replace group work, which defeats the point of onsite teaching entirely, but which fills contact hours, which improves metrics. And for my part, even if I were able or willing to go into a classroom as a kidney patient to deliver a session in an airless 1950s box with no ventlation, let alone appropriately-filtered air-conditioning, I can tell you from experience students struggle with my accent at the best of times. The Darth Vader look wouldn’t improve teaching delivery, that much is for sure.

In light of the irrationality and smiling authoritarianism that is now the default mode of higher education management in Britain, a weary cynicism has taken root in much of the sector. Universities don’t just need student fees in a marketised system – though they absolutely do need them in the absence of government underwriting the sector – they also need students to sign accommodation contracts and to shop on campus. There has to be a reason for them to physically be there, which Zoom and MS Teams can in no way provide. So the rhetoric in the media about the government wanting office workers to save corporate landlords and coffee chains by putting their bodies on their line finds its parallel here.

The authors of the letter to the The Times do finish with a caveat; staff with vulnerabilities (yay me) and who live with those with vulnerabilities should be allowed to work from home. Problem solved, then.

Except it isn’t.

First off, there’s no substantive discussion of the people they are supposedly rushing back to campus for – the students. Apart from a grandiloquent dismissal of the risk to young people as ‘miniscule’, the issue is glossed over. As the annoying bastard who used to teach a science, technology, and society module at Warwick, I’m always fascinated by how people communicate and conceptualise risk. There’s no unpacking of what risk they mean by miniscule; I’ll presume that they mean risk of death, since this seems to be governing ‘risk’ presented in much media discourse and since they have made no effort to elaborate a more nuanced one. There’s no denying young people are far less likely to die of COVID-19, there’s simply no arguing with that – though young people have died of it. And despite the loathsome language of ‘with underlying health conditions’ (a reminder that eugenics is deeply rooted in our public discourse and the very way we as a society think about the social world), young people without such conditions have also died, albeit in small numbers. But let’s switch that around, as we should – young people are kidney patients, diabetics, cancer patients, cancer survivors, transplant patients, suffer from immunological conditions, have to take cyclosporine for any number of reasons and many, many other things besides – too. Young people too get ‘Long COVID’ and find themselves struggling to breathe months after they have had the virus, or wracked by pain and fatigue. And if there’s one thing there’s a lot of in universities, it’s young people.

Then another thing. Not all students are young. Mature students exist, although since marketisation they have been a proportionately much smaller section of the student population. Apparently they don’t count either. The student body is in fact, in the eyes of the letter’s signatories, an undifferentiated mass of young athletes – think Channing Tatum, straight out of 22 Jump Street – with kidneys like nuclear reactors. COVID? We’ll shit ‘em.

Now, to be fair to the letter’s signatories, they do say that students who have vulnerabilities can work from home, as can staff. But the framing is interesting – ‘the rest of us’ can go back to work. So let’s just get those troublesome vulnerable students out of our hair, and the show can go on. More on this later.

Then the staff. OK, so the authors in their benevolence are going to let me and my ilk off from face-to-face teaching. But again, as all-too-often in HE discussion in the UK, there’s an assumption in the letter that only academics work in universities, and the wider functions of the university just happen by magic. What about academic-related professional services staff (ARPS) in education support roles, who would routinely in normal times have face-to-face conversations with students on an ongoing basis? Presumably they will be allowed to work from home too if necessary – they bloody well should be – but it doesn’t seem the authors have given any thought to this. Will there be skeleton crews of ARPS staff? What are the implications for ARPS staff, even healthy ARPS staff, who are heavily exposed on an ongoing basis? What about ARPS staff who work in libraries and study spaces? What about estates staff and cleaners?

I know of staff at institutions who worked into that final, fateful, week before Easter who contracted COVID with serious, and in a couple of cases, fatal, consequences. We now know what we suspected then – that the virus was widely-seeded across the country – and we now know the government had failed to act on a SAGE recommendation to implement a quicker lockdown than they ultimately did. My institution was one of the quicker ones to shut down on-campus operations. Others weren’t so fortunate. Why did the others not shut down immediately? Were they worried about the NSS? Were Vice-Chancellors worried – given the Education Secretary had apparently told them the previous Friday to remain open – they might jeopardise a future honour? (Never underestimate an academic’s vanity, you do so at your peril).

Returning to the earlier point about the signatories’ seemingly-dismissive attitude to those of us, staff and students, who need to work from home because of our vulnerabilities, the letter also cites the need for face-to-face on the grounds of mental health. Apparently the mental health of the vulnerable does not count; as is probably clear I have been fighting an ongoing and sometimes losing battle for sanity for much of this year, but some of my darkest days, after a period of improvement, actually came this past week. In my twenties when I was first diagnosed with kidney disease I struggled with my mental health as I always felt like I was regarded as a liability. My university which had initially offered me funding for four years (masters and PhD) for graduate work didn’t renew that offer after a chequered masters year when I was in-and-out of hospital. I was lucky – it was a different time – to get external funding which allowed me to carry on. But apart from a newsletter from the disability resource centre I got no help at all. I was shy in the settings where you are supposed to network as my face was ravaged with bleeding acne from the steroids I was on; I ballooned in weight to twenty stone, I pissed blood. And all the time I was in a hypercompetitive environment and my institution at least on some level thought I was a liability. I tell this story because I have only started feeling like that again in the past few weeks. Despite being trapped in a rural village for six months I have been able to do my job – Zoom and Teams came to the rescue – been able to attend meetings, all of it. But last week meetings were abruptly shifted onsite. You had to dial in if you weren’t going, so I just didn’t go. We are now the Afterthoughts again, the Liabilities. That’s clearly how the letter frames us too. So spare me if I find it really difficult to take its moralising language on mental health seriously.

But as Macmillan might (not) say, events. Yesterday, following the publication of the letter, it was announced that there had been the highest daily number of new cases since May, a surge on the previous day, and the government claimed this was due to a significant rise amongst younger people. And even Matt Hancock conceded that though the number of tests had risen, the proportion of those testing positive had also risen.

It was probably bad timing on my part to break my continued shielding and head to Exeter to see a couple of close friends, thinking I had best get it in before the second wave and another six months in the same postcode. I was constantly masked, sanitised, had my Kidney Care UK keep your distance badge (but no-one understands what the logo means, or pays any attention). We didn’t go indoors anywhere. And I was shocked by what to most people is by now probably familiar; masklessness, social distancing not bothered with, one-way systems ignored for all the signage. In the street we ran into a recent graduate we knew, who informed us ruefully that he was desperate to get out of the country. As an aside, he remarked that some of the prominent student clubs were reopening to coincide with the start-of-term. Amongst us all there was an air of resignation as to an impending catastrophe.

It’s not been lost on some local authorities who are now starting to panic about the mass transit of over a million students across the country over the next couple of weeks, something UCU flagged in its media blitz last weekend. Their American counterparts panicked earlier, with local mayors demanding that universities contact them with details of their plans. The situation in some institutions in New York became farcical, with students confined to their rooms and relying on food deliveries from the institution in order to isolate within bubbles. In Liverpool, there has been concern over spikes associated with student areas in the south of the city, some of which correlated with students apparently returning to finish up leases and catch up with friends in lieu of graduation (since landlords didn’t let them out of their contracts). This again, is missed by the letter’s signatories; despite the popular mythology of the university as an ivory tower, it isn’t, and never has been. As Hancock desperately attempted to responsibilise young people for the government’s failures, he argued they needed not to give the virus to their grandparents. How that is supposed to work is, at best, very unclear – something reflected in the fact that even in coronanationalist Brexit Britain, a majority of the public now think the government is handling the pandemic badly.

In a pandemic age, marketised HE has continued much as it did before – with added masks and hand sanitiser – I am still required as a programme leader to come up with a Teaching Excellence Action Plan for the 15th September that will inform our approach to NSS, and so on, and so on. I am reminded of three things in all of this; John Smyth’s depiction of the ‘toxic university’ from a couple of years back, where he decried the zombie ideology of neoliberal, marketised HE that couldn’t be killed with reason, the late David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs thesis, and my first published research on the First World War.

To start with the last first. When I was still an undergraduate and studying the First World War, I became fascinated with a single question; why did they keep going? I was sceptical of Blackadder Goes Forth and the post-1960s depiction of the war, some of which rested on the idea that people were, on some level, simply more stupid in the past. It came back to me over the past months. In the stuff I did on local communities in Liverpool and how they mobilised in the war effort, my answer was pretty straightforward. Local narratives were as important if not more so than national ones, the ways in which the war was rationalised were actually quite diverse, and it was by no means just a ‘top-down’ process where sheep were blinded by propaganda and censorship and ‘over by Christmas’. People thought the war was awful even as they fought in it, and even as they corresponded with their loved ones at the front, as they saw wounded soldiers on the streets, as they became increasingly disillusioned. They weren’t stupid.

But we moderns, as E. P. Thompson put it so well, have a terrible tendency to condescend to the past. They were Thick and we are Clever. So much so that many of us will go into unsafe working environments in a few weeks’ time to deliver an inferior education than one we could deliver online simply because we are told to and we are too afraid of losing our jobs to do anything meaningful about it. And in so doing we are often led by senior managers who actually do do a legitimate impersonation of the senior officer cadre in Blackadder Goes Forth, who lest we forget, were honoured for the ‘tough decisions’ they had to make.

Smyth’s ‘zombie leadership’ thesis chimes with this pretty straightforwardly. Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs thesis came to mind because many people’s careers depend on the NSS, even it is itself pointless – even in the midst of a pandemic it was not abandoned, with our erstwhile auditor-general arriving ten minutes after zero hour on the Somme with twenty-three questions on trench satisfaction. Ditto the REF of course. I’ve seen amusing messaging about the REF, particularly around extenuating circumstances. Apparently living through a global pandemic isn’t, in itself, a reason not to be world-leading or internationally-excellent by a specific date. That brought to mind another image; the broadcasts in Paul Verhoeven’s brilliant satire Starship Troopers, when the absolutely horrific reality is rendered consumable and normalised through flashy fonts and smiling faces even as death is all around.

So these long reflections come to an end with a conclusion of sorts (and if you have read this far, genuine thanks and hugs as it should be obvious a lot of this is catharsis). The conclusion is this, and hopefully it isn’t too dystopian. We are all higher education workers. The union’s position is the right one. The evidence points that way. In the maelstrom that is likely to erupt in the next few weeks, we should follow the evidence, cleave true to our vocations as academic and academic-related professional services staff, and not simply fall in line with authority. This time a politics of refusal could actually work. And even if it doesn’t, we define ourselves by what we do, not what we say. Because fucking hell, it really is now or never. Even in a small meeting, even in an email, raise hell. Because up isn’t down, down isn’t up, coronavirus never went away, and as ever #wearetheuniversity – yes, even those of us ‘with underlying health conditions’.

We are not expendable assets.







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