Support staff complain of abuse from locked-down students

Front-line workers left carrying the can for chaotic start of term, says union

October 15, 2020
Security guard
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University support staff have complained that campus lockdowns in the UK have left them contending with weeks of sometimes violent disruption.

The Unison union said that workers were angry at being left to manage threats and abuse from frustrated students in isolation.

They claimed that, while universities had gone to significant lengths to ensure face-to-face teaching could continue in a socially distanced way, they had not received significant additional support.

One security officer, who asked not to be named, described having to “pick up drunken students who’ve passed out and take them back to halls”. 

“​There are Covid cases on campus, but we’re not told which block they’re in,” the worker said. “We could be exposed when we take students back.”

Some students “are aggressive, they just want to have parties”, the security officer said. “The vice-chancellor only cares about the lecturers, but we’re on the front line dealing with the mess.”

Unison said that cleaners and catering staff were having to work extra hours to meet the increased demand caused by the need to deep-clean facilities, and to feed thousands of students in isolation.

Ruth Levin, Unison’s senior national education officer, said that support staff “have been caught in the crossfire in a totally avoidable situation”.

“Local or mobile testing units ​are needed on every campus and the ​government has got to get to grips with the test-and-trace system,” Ms Levin said. 

“If the ​testing system was working properly, healthy students wouldn’t be locked down and staff wouldn't have to deal with violence, a​buse and ​huge increase​s ​in workloads, with little extra support​ from university managers.”

Ms Levin added: “Staff have been working flat-out to keep universities going and​, considering the pressures they’re under, they’re doing a remarkable job. 

“​But without proper funding for universities​, many ​are at risk of losing their jobs. University managers and government ministers need to recognise that, take responsibility and end the campus crisis.”

Speaking to Times Higher Education previously, one UK vice-chancellor warned that shifting to wholly online tuition would mean closing buildings and support services, putting jobs at risks.

“Everyone taking decisions at this time also needs to listen carefully to the voices of those staff and their unions, who must not be sidelined in this discussion,” the vice-chancellor said.

The Universities and Colleges Employers Association said that it had agreed joint principles with unions on “risk assessments, clear communications for staff and students on health and safety issues related to Covid-19, and assessment of how the transition could affect different cohorts of staff”.

“Universities have planned tirelessly, engaging with staff and student representatives throughout,” said chief executive Raj Jethwa.

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