‘Universities have sidelined the science,’ says academics’ leader

One weekend in May, when Vicky Blake, the new president of the University and College Union, was supposed to be helping her father with some decorating, she realised she could not lift her arms. “I felt I’d dissolved from the inside out and there was just no power left in my body,” she says.

It was the start of months of what her doctor thinks is long Covid, with symptoms including “brain fog” and total exhaustion. But with so many of her members terrified or angry about being expected to teach face to face on campuses where Covid is spreading, and her union fighting to force institutions to move courses online, this has not been a time to slacken off.

Blake talks articulately and at great pace, stopping only to apologise that she may be rambling because she could not sleep again last night. She is spilling over with the personal stories she hears all the time – accounts from anxious lecturers, some supporting an elderly relative or with a partner who is immuno-suppressed, told to teach face to face. Stories about academics self-medicating for stress, or support staff bursting into tears on campus because there have been job cuts, and they can’t cope with the huge load on their shoulders.

While the UCU’s general secretary, Jo Grady, is often seen as the “front woman” for the union, Blake feels her own job is to listen to the personal stories and spot the trends across the sector. “There is so much job insecurity that they are really frightened to speak out,” she says.

Staff at what Blake calls the frontline, who are teaching face-to-face seminars in rooms she says are sometimes not properly cleaned or ventilated, are frequently paid by the hour, or on casual contracts. She notes that many counselling staff, who are currently under crippling pressure, are now on short-term contracts.

Blake knows first-hand how it feels to be insecure in academia. In 2013, at the age of 30, she was struggling to finish her PhD at Durham University while juggling eight different hourly paid academic contracts at Durham and Leeds. In the end she had to abandon her PhD and academic dream because of the lack of stability. When she took on the union job in June, she was working in a full-time support role as a widening participation officer at Leeds.

“I never have finished my PhD and it’s a massive regret. But when I look at what I was trying to juggle it was just stupid. I’m not surprised I couldn’t do it in the time I didn’t have.”

But it is not only university staff who are on her mind at 3am. It is the students, too, some of whom are joining the rallies she is hosting online from a quiet corner of her parents’ dining room.

She tells me about an academic friend distressed by the faces of his online students. “He sees these faces that were so full of hope and now it’s abundantly clear how stressed they are. As the weeks go by the mood is shifting, and he says he can see the worry, the disappointment.”

Another academic she knows is feeling wretched because, after hearing about students struggling to feed themselves, all she wants is to make home-cooked food for everyone self-isolating on her campus.

Blake says she “vividly” remembers “the nervous feeling in my stomach” when, aged 18, she arrived at Durham from Somerset to start a degree in natural sciences. She was “nerdy” and had an eating disorder. “I was so scared that no one would like me and so relieved when I found my friends.” Like many students, she made some of her strongest friendships beyond her corridor in halls, and suspects she would have found today’s experience of living in a “bubble” with immediate neighbours very lonely.

There are now reports of students killing themselves, Blake notes. While, sadly, mental health problems on campus had reached a serious level long before Covid-19, she is convinced some deaths are linked to the pandemic, with students, isolating in tiny residence bedrooms that were never designed to spend whole days in, let alone weeks, struggling with anxiety and depression.

“Students should never have been placed in the situation they are,” Blake says. She argues that vice-chancellors have “sidelined the scientifically informed, serious concerns of unions”, in favour of “peddling the fiction of a Covid-secure campus where an only slightly modified experience was waiting for students”. She feels this misrepresentation is a missed opportunity – universities should have campaigned together, alongside unions, to force the government to give them a proper support package. Such support would have enabled them to tell students to stay at home, without the fear of a financial black hole if students deferred or dropped out, she says.

Despite the UCU’s Covid dashboard this week logging nearly 34,000 positive cases in UK universities since the beginning of term, most vice-chancellors say the union’s position on shutting down most activities on campuses indefinitely is unrealistic. As one said: “Education matters. Covid-19 will be with us for at least another year – maybe longer. The question is: do we shut down now and watch lives ruined, or do we step up and find a way through it?”

Blake becomes angry when she hears this. “That’s so patrician. To pretend you’re forcing people on to campus in a deadly pandemic for their own good, because they need to be learning to be independent and doing their own washing,” she says. “I can’t articulate how furious that makes me.”

Her fury is, in part, because she feels universities are trying to portray her union as “a bit hysterical – and it is not lost on me that we are a union led by women at the moment”.

The union’s campaign is based on far more than emotion, she says. New documents released by the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) committee, revealed that it advised weeks ago that all university and college teaching should be online “unless face to face teaching is absolutely essential”.

“Vice-chancellors say they are being realistic,” she says, “but what is more realistic than looking at the scientific evidence, or learning from the more than 200,000 Covid cases in US universities and colleges this term?”

She says the only debate the government seems to have any appetite for is how to get students home for Christmas. “They are deflecting from the current huge problems in universities by focusing on the holidays. It’s just crazy. Many students want to go home now.”

With union branches balloting members on how the Covid crisis is being handled, the fight is only just beginning. “Staff in universities are exhausted. They are frightened about their safety and that of their students, they are angry and, overwhelmingly, they are disappointed,” Blake says. “But we believe in following the science. We are fighting for that and our students and our jobs.”

The Guardian

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