Go back

Union steps up calls for government to end uncertainty

Image: University and College Union

UCU general secretary warns of looming job cuts and squeezed provision without bailout

Universities are “staring over a cliff edge” and will face job cuts and strained academic provision unless the government steps in, the University and College Union boss has warned.

Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union, told Research Professional News that the coronavirus pandemic had shone a light on “quite a number of problems” in higher education and other sectors with a “marketised business model”. She warned the government must “step in and produce a proper underwriting of the sector”.

“It’s really alarming, because without wanting to make any predictions about when lockdown will end or how long the government will allow the furlough scheme to continue, we are staring over a cliff edge right now,” she said, explaining that universities are “moving in to cut jobs, to cut academic provision” and there will be “severe consequences” if the government does not “protect the sector in a meaningful way”.

However, Grady stressed that universities minister Michelle Donelan is “really listening” and “really understands just how reliant communities that have universities situated within them rely on those universities”.

A report for the UCU by the London Economics consultancy predicted a £2.6 billion black hole for universities in 2020-21, warning that around 30,000 university jobs could be lost. While the UCU has been briefing ministers on the problems facing universities, Grady said separate proposals from vice-chancellors’ body Universities UK “complicate things” and do not address ways to keep universities “alive and thriving and research-informed education continuing” during the pandemic.

UUK has asked the government for a multi-billion pound bailout package to help universities struggling during the coronavirus crisis. Although a quick response from the government was initially expected, the Treasury reportedly raised concerns with the proposal. The government has not yet responded but UUK teamed up with modern universities group MillionPlus to flesh out proposals on 29 April.

They suggested a loan forgiveness scheme for students taking teaching and nursing degrees. Research Professional News has called for all nursing and medical students to not be liable for loan debt while working in the NHS during the pandemic, but Grady said the union had a position of “no fees for any student”.

“The very idea that you are a nurse and you are getting in debt to be working every hour possible in an intensive care unit or wherever it is you are currently positioned in your studenship is just disgraceful,” she said, adding that the coronavirus outbreak might “lift people’s eyelids open and they recognise that this shouldn’t be happening”.

Elsewhere, Grady warned against allowing increased competition for students between universities in the same city to cause “a breeding ground for a real dog eat dog competitive atmosphere, which is bad for students, bad for staff and bad for the city”. Social distancing measures and Covid-19 travel bans may led to a drop in international and domestic students enrolling for next year.

On the Universities Superannuation Scheme, Grady said while there was “a concern” around how the coronavirus pandemic will affect investments, there have been “fruitful” discussions around the valuation methodology of the pension scheme.

“If those discussions continue to be influential, it might be that a longer-term approach and the different ways they are looking at the valuation could mitigate whatever might happen as a result of Covid-19,” she said, although discussions on the contribution increase  “haven’t moved much more”.

An in-depth interview with Grady was published in our 8am Playbook today.