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THIS week at TUC Congress, the University and College Union (UCU) will call on the wider trade union movement to back its Fund the Future campaign.
The campaign aims to secure funding to guarantee the future of our colleges and universities, protect jobs and deliver a better post-16 education system underpinned by fairness, equality and co-operation.
The campaign stems out of a Covid crisis that has seen colleges and universities on the front line.
UCU members have been training and supporting thousands of key workers, working to develop a vaccine to beat the virus and ensuring students could continue with their education.
The pandemic has brought the inherent failings of the marketised post-16 education system into sharp focus.
The market economics imposed on education have led to record debt for students, financial vulnerability for colleges and universities, and poorer pay and conditions for staff.
There are huge numbers of staff teaching in both our colleges and universities on casual contracts, who are often taking jobs at multiple institutions at a detriment to their mental health, yet still struggling to pay the bills.
Those in more secure employment have also suffered as university staff have received a real-terms pay cut of around 20 per cent over the past decade, while funding for further education fell by 27 per cent between 2010 and ‘19.
The marketised system has also left colleges and universities badly prepared to deal with the fallout from the crisis.
Staff have worked hard to support students under difficult conditions throughout the pandemic. Yet they have had to do so under a cloud of cuts and job losses because the government failed to guarantee funding lost due to the pandemic.
At a time when universities should have been pulling together, they were forced to compete against each other in a scramble to attract students.
Instead of working together to consider how and when to restart teaching and activity on campus, universities have doggedly said they will provide a normal campus experience and in-person teaching beginning this term, even though the risks associated with massive numbers of students crossing the country have always been apparent.
Since then, the government’s own scientific advisers have raised concerns about the likelihood of increased cases at universities.
As confusion and fear increases, the government and universities have insisted nothing is going to change, yet we have also seen Health Secretary Matt Hancock suggest students could be at fault for any Covid surge.
For ministers and universities to rely on the behaviour of students, rather than deploying the public-health infrastructure needed to control the virus, is a complete shirking of their own responsibility.
Students have been told to move, live, study and socialise together, at the same time the rest of the country was told to go to the pub and “eat out, to help out.”
What we need now is a serious response from universities and government, not a pre-emptive blame game.
Further education faces similar challenges. The Westminster government only released guidance for how to reopen colleges in England hours before many of them began reopening.
A study released last week said that two-thirds of college teaching staff do not feel safe returning to in-person work.
A decade of austerity has led to around 24,000 teaching roles being cut from English colleges, leaving them poorly equipped to control class sizes, and protect staff and students from Covid-19.
Instead of incorporated colleges competing with each other for students and funding streams, while increasing workloads and pushing down wages, we need to see colleges brought back into public ownership and given more funding.
This way colleges can concentrate on supporting staff and students as part of a national recovery plan.
We hope union members and the wider movement will join our efforts to create an education system that delivers for staff and students, and can provide the opportunities for all those who would benefit.
Education has to be at the heart of our recovery from this crisis, but it can only deliver with proper support.
It is time for ministers, universities and colleges to provide the clear guidance and support that will secure institutions’ futures and keep staff and students safe, so they can lead our recovery.
Full details of the campaign are available at Fund the Future where you can also write to your MP and ask them to back the campaign.
Jo Grady is general secretary of the University and College Union.
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