I visited the University of East Anglia (UEA) to discuss Covid-19 and its effect on students and staff. I had a socially distanced tour of the campus to see first-hand the precautions being taken by the university to prevent the spread of the virus. I also met with UEA vice-chancellor, David Richardson and representatives from the University College Union (UCU) and the Union of UEA Students (UEASU).
Norwich has had a recent surge of recorded positive Covid-19 cases which unfortunately dwarfs the average increase much of the county and region are seeing at present. A sizeable component of this recorded rise is clearly student-related, but there is a mitigating factor. Some of that differential upturn is accounted for by the fact that the student population is tested more frequently than other Norwich residents.
Before I go further with this update, I want to make one thing absolutely crystal clear. Norwich’s higher education institutions are fundamental parts of our city community. Whilst there will always be points of friction, their presence here enriches our city both culturally and economically. I’m well aware of reports of unacceptable student behaviour linked to the pandemic. But it’s also true that the vast majority of students have behaved responsibly and with consideration.
Some students are now facing the consequences of such unacceptable behaviour including, fines, suspension and even expulsion. I hope it won’t be necessary but anyone behaving like that in future should be reported to the relevant authorities. However, we mustn’t let this virus divide our community and provoke a search for scapegoats.
On my visit to campus, I saw many of the stringent safeguards the university have put in place (you can read more in this EDP article (bit.ly/UEACOVID). But many of the issues raised by UEA authorities, staff and students were about the financial, physical and mental health impact the virus is having on them.
Many staff, particularly younger women, feel pressurised to teach face-to-face. I also met others who actively want to teach face-to-face.
I think staff should be given a choice, with a guarantee that choosing to teach remotely will not negatively affect their career. UCU also had concerns about the transparency of the data the UEA was putting out on infection rates. After speaking to the vice-chancellor, I was told this has now been rectified and all data will be fully transparent.
Students were concerned about the cost of food provided by the university if they have to isolate. The price has now been reduced. Other key issues include student mental health and wellbeing and face to face teaching time. The university has acknowledged the first issue and has employed a new and dedicated senior management team member to oversee University mental health and welfare. It’s not a complete solution but it does show the university is aware of this growing concern.
Because most of their lessons are now online instead of face-to-face, many students say they have no reason to stay in Norwich. Some believe the university needs students to remain for financial reasons. Without students in and around the university, rent goes unpaid and spending money on campus diminishes, worsening the university’s already dire financial situation.
Over the past 40 years, our higher education system has been progressively ‘marketised’. Students now rack up enormous debts and academic research has become focused on a narrower set of commercial demands. Higher education institutions have been forced to treat staff and students as resources to maximise revenue from.
Few people in higher education sought this agenda. Now our universities are struggling, teetering between the imperatives of public service and business. Many need financial assistance but the government refuses to bail them out without the kind of strings you’d get attached to something like a loan from the International Monetary Fund. If universities take a loan, the government says they will come in and ‘drive change’ as a quid pro quo. As the old adage goes, ‘never let a good crisis go to waste’.
This government knows that all too well. Universities forced to accept such ‘help’ are likely to get catapulted ever further towards whatever ‘free-market’, deregulated trajectory this government has in mind for the sector.