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 northern regional secretary Clare Williams said: “We know our regional universities in the North East are doing what they can to support the country during this crisis, from lending testing equipment to NHS trusts, helping set up Covid 19 trials, to designing ventilators and masks. They’re also looking at how to support other key workers in student accommodation if they can’t get home.
UNISON are proud of the work our members are doing either at work or at home, and when this crisis comes to an end we need to know that the Government has done everything in its power to ensure that Universities are able to continue the excellent work that they do. It’s vital that the Government agrees to once again underwrite universities so that no institution is at risk of going bust after this uncertainty.”
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.”