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Government must not allow universities to fail during the coronavirus outbreak

Universities Minister Michelle Donelan
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Universities must be given extra protection during the #Covid_19 pandemic to ensure their financial survival because of their vital contribution to the economy, local communities and crucial medical research, unions are warning the government today (Tuesday).

In a joint letter to higher education minister Michelle Donelan, five unions representing higher education (HE) staff ask for urgent assurances that universities will not be allowed to go under as a result of the outbreak, backed up with legislation.

UNISON, University and College Union (UCU), GMB, Unite and the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) say the sector is too valuable for any institutions to get into financial difficulties and will play a key role in rebuilding the country.

Some universities are the biggest employer in their area and whole communities are reliant on them, the unions say, with the HE sector employing around 750,000 people.

In addition to biological research, their work is key to understanding the impact of the outbreak on society, psychologically and economically.

The letter says: “The higher education sector is vital in addressing this current crisis. University research is central in developing tests for the illness and antibody tests, in tracking Covid-19, in developing vaccines and carrying out medical research.

“A stable and well-resourced higher education sector will be vital in getting through this crisis.

“The university sector is one of the most productive and important parts of the UK economy with international students alone bringing in £7.3 billion each year and the sector as a whole generating £73 billion.

“We are already getting many reports of universities serving notifications of redundancies, and of contractors in universities sending staff home without pay or asking them to use their annual leave. 

“It is no overstatement to say that such a response from universities will be disastrous for the individuals concerned and their families as well as for the future of the higher education sector – one of the most important industries in the UK.

UNISON senior national officer for higher education Ruth Levin said: “Universities are one of the UK’s biggest success stories – it’s vital they’re protected.

“Hundreds of thousands of staff, as well as current and future students, need a clear signal the government is taking action.”

UCU head of higher education Paul Bridge said:  “We need a clear and coherent plan from the government that guarantees funding and jobs to protect our academic capacity.

“The country can ill afford to throw thousands of teachers, researchers and professional support staff on the dole when education will be a key driver of recovery.”

EIS general secretary Larry Flanagan said: “It is essential that all sectors of education, including our world-renowned university sector, are provided with proper support during the Covid-19 crisis.

“Staff and students alike deserve assurance from the UK government, and indeed from the Scottish government, that our higher education system will be protected.”

GMB national officer Kevin Brandstatter said: “UK universities employ huge numbers of workers, and in many towns and cities are the largest employer.

“The coronavirus pandemic is a grave threat to the sector, with universities not knowing how many students they might have in the autumn and whether any non-UK students will be able to enrol.

“The government must secure the future of the sector, and at the same time give stability and certainty to workers on low-paid insecure contracts by ensuring all university staff are in direct, properly paid and secure employment.”

Unite national officer for education Siobhan Endean said: “Our universities are central to rebuilding our economy post Covid-19 and the government needs to act now to provide the funding it desperately needs. 

“The higher education sector is the bedrock for developing the skilled workforce of the future. The economic challenges of rebuilding our industry, a period of fast technological development and the need for strong communities requires that we invest in education. ”

The full letter

Michelle Donelan MP
Minister for Higher Education
Department for Education
20 Great Smith Street
London
SW1P 3BT

Dear Minister

COVID-19, Higher Education and University Support staff

We’re writing to you on behalf of the staff working in the UK universities as represented by the five higher education trade unions.

Concerns are mounting about the future of our sector. We are aware that the impact of COVID-19 is likely to be extensive and, at this point in time, the full extent of the impact is unknown. The higher education sector is vital in addressing this current crisis. University research is central in developing tests for the illness and antibody tests, in tracking COVID-19, in developing vaccines and carrying out medical research. University research is also crucial to the development of a robust understanding of the societal, psychological, and economic impacts of the pandemic, necessary for evidence-based policy formation. A stable and well resourced higher education sector will be vital in getting through this crisis.

In terms of rebuilding our economy in the wake of COVID-19, higher education must have a central role. The university sector is one of the most productive and important parts of the UK economy with international students alone bringing in £7.3 billion per annum (UUK) and the sector as a whole generating £73 billion per annum. In addition, the sector directly provides employment to approximately half a million staff, which rises to three-quarters of a million in total when including those employed by contractors and subsidiary companies.

In many towns and cities universities are the single biggest employers and are central not only to providing excellent education but also to contributing to the local economy and civic society. The role of universities, once we are past the worst of COVID-19 and particularly in a post-Brexit UK, will be more important than ever. Universities will be central to retraining and reskilling our workforce and the workforce of the future. Universities will be vital to establishing new enterprise and business for the growth of the economy in the future and in helping the UK to redefine its place in the world.

Despite its crucial role, the necessary stability and resourcing of the higher education sector is in huge doubt. Since the Higher Education and Research Act was passed into law the financial safeguards that previously had underwritten universities are no longer in place. The status of universities is threatened and with it one of the building blocks of our society is at risk. We are aware that the Office for Students has recently written to universities with details of the changes to the reporting requirements due to COVID-19, but the fundamental assurances that the sector needs have not been provided to date.

The joint unions are calling on the government to urgently provide assurances, and the appropriate legislation, to ensure that universities will not be allowed to ‘go out of business’. Universities, and all the staff who work in them and for them, as well as current and future students, need to know that higher education is valued by this government and will be protected by this government.

We are also calling on you to ensure that universities are safeguarding jobs. We are already getting many reports of universities serving notifications of redundancies, and of contractors in universities sending staff home without pay or asking them to use their annual leave. It is no overstatement to say that such a response from universities will be disastrous for the individuals concerned and their families as well as for the future of the higher education sector – one of the most important industries in the UK. Universities and all of their staff need to know that they will be underwritten by the government, and have the full support of the government, throughout this period of uncharted economic instability.

Yours sincerely,

Ruth Levin, Paul Bridge, Siobhan Endean, Deborah Shepherd, and Kevin Brandstatter

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