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Scottish Trades Union Congress 2020 Digital inclusion, education and the role of unions

Our reliance on the internet to work, to study and to engage with friends and family is all too apparent in the new Covid world. We need to make sure everyone has the resources to take part and the opportunity to learn, says MARY SENIOR

IT’S barely a year since Jeremy Corbyn was mocked by many for proposing to introduce free full-fibre broadband for all.  

A policy which appeared frivolous and futuristic in November 2019 is a bread-and-butter issue 12 months on.    

A global pandemic, its lockdowns, Zoom meetings and the “digital Christmas” on the horizon, means technology, wifi and devices are our window to the world.  

Indeed STUC Congress this week is meeting “virtually,” with delegates logging in to their tablets, laptops and smart phones, to debate the People’s Recovery and how we create a Scotland fit for the future.  

This is the new normal for trade unionists; it’s the way the vast majority of us interact in 2020.

Our reliance on the internet to work, to learn and to engage with friends and family is all too apparent in the new Covid world. 

However, the digital poverty and exclusion of those without broadband access, without the space, skills or facilities to get online, will have long-term implications for individuals, their education, mental health and the economy more generally.  

Tackling this digital divide, where children, students, workers and citizens are locked out of schools, colleges, workplaces and society, has to be a priority for our movement. 

Digital exclusion is just another manifestation of poverty, but has become fundamental when so much learning and work is online.  

The ability to work, learn and be supported remotely through technology has been vital in keeping people — students, workers, pupils and their families — safe from a virus that spreads exponentially with human contact.   

Schools, colleges, universities and community learning have all shown that it is entirely possible to deliver quality education online in a different but viable manner if everyone has the skills, tools and infrastructure in place.    

Indeed educational workers — teachers, lecturers, support staff — worked quickly and effectively back in March to shift learning and support online as the pandemic struck and lockdown commenced.   

Nine months on and it is clear that we’re not in control of the virus.  

While education is important — education and skills development underpins economic recovery as well as supporting wellbeing — keeping pupils, students and staff healthy and safe has to be the priority.   

In universities we’re still seeing arbitrary targets for in-person learning to be delivered, with staff and students being compelled to travel onto campuses for classes and tutorials.   

There’s ambiguity in the new Scottish government rules, with a lack of clarity on what is meant by “restricted blended” learning, which is in place for the vast majority of universities and colleges now in Scotland’s “level three” areas.  

With the end of term fast approaching, the plans to enable students to return home safely for the festive period are sketchy to say the least.    

It’s unclear if it is university staff and students who will be administering the new asymptomatic tests, how students who test positive will be supported mentally and practically to self-isolate, and government is yet to give a coherent plan for semester two in the new year.     

This is crucial if we are to avoid the coronavirus outbreaks which marked the start of the academic year in September, and keep everyone safe.

Our marketised education system has suffered too, when its income from overseas student tuition fees, accommodation rents, and commercial conferencing and hospitality revenue was hit by the Covid lockdown.  

Universities like Edinburgh Napier and Heriot Watt responded by threatening jobs and livelihoods of their workers.  

At a time when the Scottish government is supporting an education-led recovery, it is a nonsense for universities to be adding to the unemployment claimant count. 

They should be providing new and additional opportunities for young people, for older learners and for people thrown out of work in those sectors genuinely affected by the Covid lockdown.   

Fortunately strong unions in both universities stood up to management threats.  

Unison members at Napier and UCU members in Heriot Watt organised magnificently. 

Trade unions demonstrated the collective power of workers to smash through the anti-trade union ballot thresholds, save jobs, defend education and come out of a dispute with a stronger trade union voice and fair work placed clearly on the employers’ agenda.

However, if we are to truly have an education-led recovery, we need to end the real-terms cuts in funding that our universities in Scotland endure and trade unions continue to make the case for fair funding for education.  

The role of education, of science and research, is back in vogue to some extent as we rely on experts, researchers and scientists to tackle the virus with medicine, vaccines and cures.   

Education, and the critical thinkers it provides, also enable us to understand the world in which we live.  

Our recent experiences at Heriot Watt and Napier universities remind us that we do need to keep fighting for it; and with our battle against poverty and digital exclusion, we need to ensure that everyone can access that opportunity to learn.

Mary Senior is the University and College Union’s Scotland official and STUC vice-president.

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