twitter facebook

Lost for Words: Working in Higher Education, Oct 2020

Published: 9th October, 2020

A University of Leicester employee offers some personal reflections on their experience of working in Higher Education as the 2020-21 academic year begins.

I’ve been trying to think of a metaphor for working in Higher Education over the last few weeks. It’s not easy because the conditions, quite simply, feel incomparably appalling. I’d like to say that universities are stumbling blindfold into a disaster, but they’ve been tearing towards one, eyes-wide-open, hell-for-leather for weeks now.

And now we are seeing the results. There are outbreaks in universities up and down the country. There are thousands of students locked down in halls of residence in appalling conditions with little support. There are staff becoming ill after working on campus delivering face-to-face work.

They cannot say that they weren’t warned. The re-opening of university campuses was described as high risk by government SAGE and Independent SAGE. UCU has, of course, been telling us that its unsafe for months. But, of course, they didn’t listen. There is no need to take teaching online, they said.

Only now, that’s exactly what is happening in Manchester and in Sheffield and doubtless other places will follow. It has taken thousands of people to get sick. Let’s hope that no one dies, because that could so easily happen.

Yet at Leicester, we still hurtle towards a disaster that is waiting to happen because the university leadership seems to be convinced that they can outsmart a virus, defeat a global pandemic, overcome an illness that has killed tens of thousands people in this country alone over the last six months. Who do they think they’re kidding?

Staff are being forced, despite their fears for themselves and their loved ones, to undertake campus-based face-to-face work of many different kinds…teaching, catering, library work, professional services support, cleaning, portering and more. Yet much of it is unnecessary.

And what of the conditions? Some staff are working at makeshift desks without proper equipment, others are being forced to use hotdesks because their buildings have been ‘mothballed’. Teaching staff are being pushed into classrooms with multiple students who live in residences that we now know are petri dishes of infection, protected only by a visor that studies now tell us is utterly ineffective.

And when we protest, they tell us that it is ‘safe’, that they have made the campus ‘Covid Secure’, that there is nothing to worry about, so confident are they in their belief that they can take the number one slot in the League Table of Global Pandemic-Defeating Universities.

But it’s not safe. Switch on the news. See the figures climb. Watch as disasters unfold in universities across the country. Still, they tell us there’s nothing to fear. Well, we know there is and we are not having it. Are they lying to themselves?

So to come back to my metaphor, I’d say working at a university is a bit like life in a Victorian London. Protection for workers is non-existent, working conditions are literally life-threatening, and the gaslighting is second-to-none.