Frontline workers and Covid-19: support staff and the neoliberal university

Max O’Donnell-Savage explains how university support staff are forced to risk their lives – while ensuring campuses are 'Covid-19 secure' for students

November 24, 2020 · 7 min read
Photo: Creative Commons

As a million university students have returned to lecture halls across the country, a disaster has been brewing. University support staff – from cleaners to porters, cooks to security staff – are integral to many institutions’ plans to ‘mitigate’ the impact of the pandemic. But these workers are often outsourced, with access to no more than basic statutory sick pay. As a result, both self-isolating and putting food on the table is almost impossible. The likely result will be an explosion in cases as the low-paid workers who make higher education possible bear the brunt of the ‘second wave’. This is the endgame of the neoliberal university: outsourced support staff will face a deadly disease alone, while senior managers on six-figure salaries scheme up ways to turn a pandemic into a profit.

Why outsource?

Before fees were introduced in 1998, most funding across higher education came from the central government. Since fees have been introduced, direct state support has dwindled. This has had a series of destabilising consequences.

The £9000 fees introduced in 2012 would now be worth £10,700 if adjusted for inflation, but fees have only risen to £9250. This means almost every year universities have seen a real terms cut in the amount of money they get from each home or EU student.

This in turn has led to an aggressive push to create new funding streams and to cut costs. It has involved pay cuts for staff for most of the last decade, private financing to build accommodation and a drive to recruit international students who are charged on average £15,000 a year for a Masters that costs home and EU students half of that. It has also led to a swathe of outsourcing of support services like catering, cleaning and security.

Universities now need ever-increasing numbers of students and an ever-growing number of accommodation halls to keep the money rolling in. So any short term shock to student numbers leaves universities vulnerable. Whereas pre-1998 government funding would keep universities going through such crises, they are now told to just get on with it. As always, issues faced by the sector are deflected by the senior managerial class onto the most precarious and often most essential workers: more outsourcing, more pay cuts and more redundancies.

Outsourcing essential work allows some universities to claim they pay all their staff a living wage, while other workers on the same campus are paid minimum wage often with no access to sick pay beyond the paltry statutory amount. Thus universities aim to both cut their costs and outsource their responsibilities for poor working conditions.

For years, outsourcing has been criticised for giving workers a raw deal and promoting a race to the bottom for their conditions. With the Covid-19 pandemic, we are waking up to the fact that this not only puts those workers at risk, but will contribute to rising rates of the disease in cities and towns nationwide.

We’re all in this together

10,000 students have already been infected, rates are at least seven times higher at universities than in their surrounding areas, and lockdowns, crackdowns and security dogs were being brought onto campus – well before the November lockdown – to discipline students for trying to have a student experience they were promised.

All of this was entirely foreseeable and preventable, but for the iron logic of our neoliberal education system.

While trade unions have been calling since summer for nearly all teaching to be online and for campus activity to be kept to the bare essential, these warnings have been ignored by ministers and vice chancellors alike.

VCs and senior managers failed to aggressively campaign for a major government bailout, which could have seen managers, unions and students all working for the same purpose, and a safe – if still imperfect –  beginning to the new academic year.

Instead it’s been a race to fill halls and recruit students, ignoring the myriad examples of US universities forced to pivot online within weeks of opening campuses.

Managers have since been playing catch up, confining and fining students to try and keep a lid on infections even as they explode at institutions like Manchester Met.

Furthermore, outsourced workers prime this powder keg threatening to overwhelm an already overstretched NHS.

Most university staff can adapt to some degree of home working if they have to self isolate, with no reduction in pay. Additionally, staff directly employed at most universities receive full sick pay for months, meaning if they do contract the virus even with mild symptoms they can stay home, still able to afford rent and bills, and avoid spreading the virus to others. 

Yet support service workers often have no way of working from home. So if they’re told to self isolate they will have to ask themselves the question: “can I afford not to go in?” As many outsourced workers earn the minimum wage the answer, particularly if they have any dependents, will almost certainly be no.

The same equation applies if they do contract the virus. These staff with no safety net or support may have to continue work to avoid defaulting on bills.

Too late, universities will realise that those essential workers who they think don’t deserve direct employment, don’t deserve sick pay and ought to live on a poverty wage will bring a plague upon their house.

The next crisis is here

Already the situation on the ground is deteriorating for outsourced workers.

At Sussex University the catering service is run by Chartwells, a notorious outsourcing company who don’t recognise any unions in their Sussex food division. They have begun a month-long consultation on the prospect of making 70 per cent of their workers redundant. 

If you had in-house catering then even through a slump you could have continued to employ people for socially useful projects in this difficult time.

Instead you have mass sackings of people who are being depended upon to provide meals for self isolating students, the number of which will no doubt increase in the months ahead. As demand ticks up there is the glaring question of whether less people will do more work, putting food quality and health and safety on the line, or whether Chartwells will bring in agency staff who will have even poorer working rights, lack experience and who again could pose a health risk.

If these cuts go through, the University of Sussex’s catering will be run by a skeleton crew that is dependent on cheap agency workers. Chartwells have already developed their own internal agency known as Constellation – a development likely to be mirrored across a higher education sector reeling from the damage this neoliberal logic has done to our universities and communities.

The race to the bottom is in full swing. Students, staff and unions must join forces to demand decent rights for all workers and the protection of public health.

Max O’Donnell-Savage is a Unite the Union representative in higher education


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