Reacting to Covid-19 by slashing fixed-term staff would be a disaster

The government must guarantee the sustainability of universities, say Richard Watermeyer, Aline Courtois and Hugh Lauder

April 3, 2020
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Amid the rapid online migration imposed by the Covid-19 crisis, many academics are asking what happens next. Yet the focus of this question seems to have quickly changed, from “When will we be back on campus?” to “Will we be back?”

For many, the challenge is to manage the dual responsibility of caring for dependants while also accommodating their students’ academic and emotional needs – in a work culture already creaking under the weight of hyper-intensification. At the same time, many are contending with the ill-preparedness of their institutions’ – and, indeed, their nations’ – structures for professional life via broadband. This is as true for professional service staff as it is for academics (although other security, catering and accommodation staff remain diligently on campus despite the patent risk to their health).

Many will reflect that universities are far from the worst-off sector of society. Despite obvious frustrations and limitations, university staff are at least able to continue to work despite the physical closure of university premises. They have not lost their employment. They still enjoy an income – at least for now.

Concerns, however, are beginning to circulate about the long-term sustainability of universities. If the lockdowns endure, how will they be able to recruit students whose tuition may not easily, if at all, be accommodated online – let alone the international students who bankroll many institutions. The ability of universities to then absorb what may be a large income gap is less than assured. The support of governments certainly isn’t guaranteed either given that they are already committed to vast spending in response to the economic assault of Covid-19.

In the UK, chatter now abounds, especially on social media, that the sector is facing its greatest crisis yet, and that many smaller, less well-established or already financially struggling institutions will collapse. Whispers are also emerging from some universities of plans for significant staff cuts. If true, the precarity already faced by so many members of the UK university community may be about to expand greatly.

Indeed, there is already emerging evidence that universities are not renewing the contracts of fixed-term workers, as one substantial cost-saving initiative. On Thursday, for instance, it emerged that three UK universities are laying off people on fixed-term contracts.

According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, there are roughly 70,000 members of academic staff on fixed-term contracts, accounting for 34 per cent of all academic staff. The University and College Union puts that figure at more like 50 per cent. The numbers are smaller for professional service staff, but, at 34,000, they still amount to 32 per cent of the total. As many might expect, there is also a gender angle, with women being most concentrated in precarious roles.

A further concern is that these figures fail to account for all those working in universities. Individuals with casual or atypical employment status, such as those on zero-hour contracts or agency workers, are typically not represented.

The impact of job cuts on such a vast scale would be enormous. Not only would about 100,000 highly skilled and knowledgeable individuals be out of a job, those “lucky” enough to remain would be placed under intolerable pressure to compensate for their absent colleagues. This would surely precipitate mass industrial action, effectively causing the total cessation of all activity. The consequences for teaching and research would be catastrophic. The wider economic and social implications would be untold.

But this bleak prognosis need not come to pass. Universities need not be so mercenary in their approach to future-proofing. They certainly don’t need to use Covid-19 as a convenient excuse for cost-cutting strategies they had in mind anyway. They could – and some will – seek more humane ways to maintain their economic viability: ways that might also reverse the dissipation of trust in university leadership.

The ball is also in governments’ and regulators’ court. If they are truly committed to ensuring that sustainable industries and universities emerge from the upheaval caused by the pandemic, there are several economic strategies they might employ.

In the UK’s case, the reimposition of a cap on student numbers may well be one way to stabilise the higher education marketplace and avoid seeing some institutions go to the wall. But such a relatively mild measure will do little to reassure those whose livelihoods now hang in the balance. More, surely, will be needed if the worst-case scenario is to be avoided.

Richard Watermeyer is professor of higher education at the University of Bristol. Aline Courtois is lecturer in education, and Hugh Lauder is professor of education and political economy, both at the University of Bath.

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Reader's comments (1)

'They could – and some will – seek more humane ways to maintain their economic viability: ways that might also reverse the dissipation of trust in university leadership.' - such as..? University leaders probably crying out for ideas on how best to manage this and if the authors know better then it would be good to share.