Students face Covid-19 chaos on campus

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By forcing students back to college, the government and university authorities have abandoned them to an ill
thought out strategy of ‘herd immunity’, and the consequences are a wildfire of infections, writes Carlo Morelli.

Since students returned to universities and colleges across the UK in September over 21,000 positive cases of Covid19 have been identified by the lecturers’ union, the UCU. These figures underestimate the true figures, since, according to research from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, as many as 80 percent of students may be asymptomatic and therefore are not being tested. Students are being subjected to a public health experiment in herd immunity without consent or any of the protection in place that would be expected in human medical trials.
There is no consent from the subjects of the experiment, no opportunity to remove themselves from the experiment, no ethics approval, no close health monitoring of those infected and no protection for those who have yet to contract the virus. Yet university and college managements are allowed to continue isolating students who have tested positive with those who are negative. Inevitably, infection is rising and spreading into local communities.
The public outcry when the government did little to address the way in which Covid-19 swept through nursing homes is in stark contrast to the experiment being inflicted on students. While mortality rates for young people are lower, the levels of longer term debilitating illness, so-called Long Covid, is unknown. Early estimates suggest as much as 26 percent of 18-34 year olds report prolonged symptoms. To add insult to injury, the Tory government and university managements blame students for the spread of the virus because they socialise in halls of residence, despite the fact that they were told campuses were “Covid secure”.
Covid-19 has exposed the bankruptcy of the ideology of neoliberal capitalism and the development of a marketed system for higher education. Student and staff health come a poor second to profit. The higher education sector is rooted in a model of fees, loans and markets for students. The 2.4 million students in British HE are forced to take on debt to study, much of which will never be repaid. Everything has a price from classes downwards. Students are charged fees even to have their initial application processed. They pay excessive rents for accommodation and extra fees for course materials in practisebased subjects. They have to pay to attend their own graduation. Private sector bodies have moved into these markets, especially in student accommodation and, together with tuition fees, it is these rentdriven profits that lay behind the government’s desperation to get students back onto campus.
Universities owning their own accommodation or contracting with private providers faced big losses if students hadn’t returned to enrol or studied online. Universities UK, one of the employers’ bodies, estimated losses of £790m from student accommodation, catering and conference activity from Easter through to September 2020. Before summer, university managements feared a drop in attendance of 2 percent in home students and 50 percent in international student numbers. As a result, they insisted students must attend in person to receive their education and benefit from the “student experience”. But even when the fears of falling student numbers receded universities continued to demand students take up rental accommodation. The debacle and U-turn in the use of moderated grades has in fact led to a rise in student numbers.
UCAS, the undergraduate admissions body, reports applications rose by 20,000 in 2020 compared to the previous year. Postgraduate entry rose still further. Even, in Scotland, where tuition fees are paid by the Scottish government, guidance to universities that “work and study that can be done remotely must be done so” was dropped, allowing Scottish universities to force students to attend in person. Students have been quick to protest at universities putting profits over their safety. There have been calls for rent rebates, rent strikes and tuition fee rebates.
Protests in Glasgow and Manchester’s universities have broadened solidarity networks developing between students in lockdown, students not-in lockdown, staff and local campaigners and trade unionists. These protests have the potential to shift the focus away from student behaviour and towards managements’ greed. At Glasgow University, students set up a Students Before Profit group issuing demands calling for testing for all, freezing rents, returning tuition fees and an end to blaming student behaviour for the spike in infections. Their demands include calls for justice for international students, no redundancies for staff and solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.
Similarly, the UCU union has campaigned for an “online by default” position. In-person teaching and support activities should only be maintained where it is an absolute necessity. Through the UCU Solidarity Movement staff have organised student and staff assemblies. Campaigns to refuse to provide in-person provision have also developed with individuals using inadequate risk assessments under the Health and Safety Act to refuse to take in-person classes. Where these have been combined with the union branch declaring disputes with their employer this response has been collectivised. Protests, walkouts and even unofficial strike action is needed if staff and students are to stay safe.
Carlo Morelli is UCU Scotland President. Follow him on Twitter, @carlomorelliUCU