Socialist Worker

Students and workers demand action over coronavirus at universities

by Sophie Squire and Sadie Robinson
Issue No. 2727

Students in Glasgow protesting on Friday

Students in Glasgow protesting on Friday (Pic: Hector Sierra)


University students and staff took part in a day of action on Friday to protest at their treatment by management during the pandemic.

In Manchester 40 students gathered and then walked down the road, holding flares and blocking traffic.

Ambrose, who is at Manchester university told Socialist Worker, "We were able to get a diverse crowd out. We had activists from Unis without Borders, and the rent strike movement as well as people from the Unison union and some health workers.

“One of the most popular chants was 'Nine grand for what?', but we also had anti-racist chants about stopping deportations.

“After the day of action everyone feels more geared up to keep going. Next week there is a rent strike planned and we’ll be protesting again for that.”

 Students held a stall outside Trinity College in Cambridge. Activists said that it was important to come out as the college is looking to make 90 university workers redundant.

And students from Kingston university in south London hung a banner from a bridge near university accommodation.

Marched

In Glasgow students held their protest outside the library. They then marched down the road and demanded that the university keep students “virus free.”

Students gathered outside The Courtroom student accommodation In Bristol. Activists said that those inside the accommodation also held banners and signs at their windows.

Campaign groups and unions also attended, including the UCU union.

Protesters said that they will continuing the fight and will be supporting a rent strike starting next Saturday.

In Sheffield students along with activists from trade unions and groups such as the Acorn renters' union, the UCU, and the NEU union gathered outside a Sheffield Hallam university hall of residence.

Protester Abbie, a first year student, told the crowd, “We need support for students locked in, in a new unfamiliar environment with unfamiliar people.

“But where is the support, where is the support for our wellbeing?”

Solidarity

The actions were organised by students along with workers who are part of the UCU solidarity movement.

They come as the government has said that all students could endure a two-week lockdown so that they can return to their families for Christmas.

But university bosses and student leaders are questioning the practicality of locking tens of thousands of students down. And many question whether it would make any difference to stopping the spread of the virus

Dr Ellen Brooks-Pollock, an epidemic modeller at the University of Bristol, said, “Two weeks might be enough for students living in smaller households, living with two or three other people, but in these halls of residence, where there are really a lot of people living together, it could just lead to an outbreak in those halls of residence.

“And if there’s already disseminated infections, many of which are unobserved, two weeks wouldn’t be long enough at the end of term— it’s too late, essentially.”

The protests on Friday have to be the first of many days of action to demand justice and safety for students and staff at universities.


Workers support students and demand action from management 

There is a furious mood over bosses’ mishandling of the coronavirus crisis among university workers. UCU union members report big, angry union meetings and a willingness to fight back.  

Bruce Baker is a UCU rep at Newcastle university, where virus cases are rising. He told Socialist Worker that UCU members there this week held “the largest branch meeting we’ve ever had”.  

“The fact that it was a record turnout gives some indication of the depth of feeling,” he said.  

The meeting passed a motion highlighting health and safety issues and another paving the way towards industrial action if no agreement is reached.  

Bruce explained that, although there is currently no face to face teaching, this could change after a review later in October.  

“We are also doing remote teaching with inadequate resources to support it,” he said. “What’s worse is trying to prepare to do remote and face to face together, and the idea we can switch between them at a moment’s notice.  

“We are having much higher workloads piled on us.”  

Workers at Croydon College in south London held a protest on Friday

Workers at Croydon College in south London held a protest on Friday


Bruce also said students should not be scapegoated for the rise in Covid-19 cases. “Some say the outbreak among students is because they’re not following guidelines,” he explained.  

“That view blames individual students too much. And it is based on a very unrealistic, idyllic view of what university is like for most students, many of whom have to work while studying to make ends meet.”  

Many university workers will be fearful of being pushed to work in unsafe environments. Bruce pointed out that workers have “rights but also responsibilities under Section 44 not to go into unsafe work environments”.  

“UCU is not telling anyone not to go into work,” he said. “That would be inciting unlawful industrial action.  

“But we are making sure that all our members understand their legal rights under health and safety legislation, and feel confident using their own judgement about that.”  


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