We have only just started teaching, and I can tell you already that it is over: this ship is going to crash. The course is set, the shoals are already upon us, there is no one at the helm, and no lighthouse in sight. Nothing guides university policy across the UK in this time of pandemic other than dead-eyed, brutish finance. I can think of no better case study of “capitalist realism” than what I am witnessing around me. Get the students back into residence contracts, into fees contracts, into contracts of any sort. Keep them there, by any means necessary, including, in two infamous instances of campus self-isolation, both locking the fire escape and telling self-isolating students to “stay behind” in the event of a fire. Hang on until those contractual obligations mature, and students are locked into paying some of the fees they owe: fees for, by any measurement, a disastrous disfigurement of an educational experience. Drink as much of the milkshake as possible. Pray outside the office doors of a government that visibly, gleefully, does not give a toss about the sector. A government that will never help willingly, and is waiting with bated breath for the weakest institutions to collapse. I think they will get what they wanted.
Thousands of academics across a wide spectrum of disciplines accurately predicted the results of enticing students back onto campus, into halls, into classrooms. Now, look: 21,000 confirmed infections in higher education alone in the last few weeks. Huge outbreaks among student (and staff) communities in Nottingham, Bristol, Exeter, Manchester, Sheffield, Newcastle, Northumbria; the outbreak list has surpassed 50 institutions, with more coming. We have endured gaslighting from the minions of university managers including darkly comical assertions in the pages of the Times Higher and WonkHE that it would never be as bad as the situation in the USA. Reading that article now I am fully unable to understand why the author has not yet turned into a corn cob. We are bullied into teaching in-person despite the risks to our health, the health and wellbeing of our students, and despite the apparent poverty of a classroom experience where most small group work and organic discussion is impossible. We are baffled by campaigns from student union branches and sabbatical officers so enervated by consumerism that they want *more* face-to-face teaching in the teeth of serious local outbreaks, by injunctions to “volunteer” as crisis counsellors outside of student flats, arrant incompetence evident in attempts to make campuses “COVID-secure”, and threatened with constant redundancy moves aimed at the Arts and Humanities (just recently Roehampton, where managers are also shutting down any attempt by staff to protest it). Union branches have negotiated short time working agreements, including my own branch, in effect partially furloughing ourselves (though we aren’t doing any less work this year, let me tell you) in order to stave off hundreds of threatened job losses. Lecturers are afraid, for themselves and for their students, and they are hiding their fear, self-medicating, going off on stress-related leave, the works:
He can’t shake the feeling that he and his colleagues are “disposable, like cannon fodder”.
I am sure many staff are wondering when the dam is going to break, but I am here to tell you that it has already broken, and all this is actually us wading through the floodwaters, mouths agape at the damage. So many of us have just been stupefied by the collective refusal of both government and university management to take any responsibility for this crisis. I am pretty confident that in the government’s case this refusal is both political and malicious, whereas in university management’s case it is craven and fiscally-motivated. Caught between an unstoppable force and an immovable object, the ‘university community’, such as remains, is being crushed into nothingness.
Normally this would be a good place to pivot to some solutions; something, anything, that we can do to try to affect this situation. Many have been suggested: mass non-compliance, motions of no-confidence and activating branch disputes, departments simply ‘going rogue’ and moving all their teaching online with or without official permission (probably my preferred option), lecturers quietly telling all their students to get out now, while the getting is good. But there are no good solutions to this moral vacuum, in point of fact the very people who genuinely do have the power to ameliorate this situation remain adamant in their refusal to do so. Universities are to remain open and teaching is to continue even at Tier 3 restrictions, says the Prime Minister, once again fully proving himself an avatar of the ‘destructive character’ of Walter Benjamin’s nightmares. March into class, then get sick or don’t, no one in power seems to care.
Universities are not meant to be like this, in many parts of the world they still aren’t. But here in the UK our intellectual life has been fully asset-stripped, and we are in the endgame now: our universities have become call-centres, hygiene theatres, mere service providers, for-profit prisons with as yet untapped shareholder value sitting there in plain view. I do not know how we can rescue higher education, how we steer the ship out of shoals that have already caught us, but I do know that this year above all other years, we need to try.