On top of such personal losses comes the virus’s wider impact. While lectures and teaching continue online, the removal of access to libraries and laboratories, and, above all, to people, takes a toll – particularly on students in their final year, or on one-year courses. Following February’s strikes, some will feel they have lost half a year of their higher education. Those reliant on income from casual work (often in retail or catering), or tied into rental agreements for shared houses, risk increased debts and other hardships.
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Academics are struggling, like other workers, with the challenge of combining day jobs with caring responsibilities. Conferences are cancelled. A huge number of lecturers and other staff on temporary contracts were already insecure before the virus hit, and in some cases shockingly poorly paid. Now the prospect of further cuts and outsourcing looms.
The easing of the lockdown, whenever it comes, should lessen the sense of disaster and enable the social side of academic life to resume. But the autumn is expected to bring fresh difficulties, with between 20% and 80% of international students, whose fees the sector relies on (about £3bn in England), expected to stay away. Some fear British students too could opt out on the grounds that physical distancing measures will disrupt learning. In Scotland the threat is even more acute, since without tuition fees universities are even more reliant on international income.
So far the Treasury appears resistant to the sector’s call for a £2bn bailout, although this is supported by other Whitehall departments. Given the scale of the unfolding economic disaster this is perhaps not surprising. But it would be folly for politicians to ignore the proposed rescue package, which includes a cap on numbers designed to protect the weaker institutions and disciplines that are most likely to suffer. The UK was the second most popular destination in the world for international students, behind the US, until recently being overtaken by Australia. Boris Johnson’s reintroduction of the post-study work visas removed by Theresa May sent a strong, positive signal.
The aggressive and ideological marketisation of the English university system has destroyed much that was of value. Soaring pay for managers combined with casualisation of academic staff is a symptom of a deeper malaise. The combination of tuition fees with decades of housing market failure has placed an impossible and unjust burden on the young. There is a risk that Brexit could be harmful to a sector that must be outward-facing, as well as taking seriously its local obligations, if it is to succeed.
But right now, the priority must be to support universities through the crisis, and enable these hubs of science, culture and ideas – which are also major employers – to play their part in the national recovery. Four of Europe’s 30 universities disappeared in the wake of the Black Death. To allow the UK university sector to shrink following Covid-19 would only perpetuate the unimaginative short-termism that has so depleted the public sector over the past decade. As policymakers struggle to contain a disaster they failed to prepare for, it should be obvious how much we need our centres of learning.
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