Navigating through COVID, Brexit and the Scottish Parliament 2021 elections

Mary Senior surveys the changing landscape to identify the countless challenges in higher education.

In unprecedented times, last March the University and College Union’s (UCU) members returned from 14 days of strike action – over pensions, casual contracts, workloads and discriminatory pay – to a global health pandemic and lockdown. Overnight, university staff rose to the challenge to put lectures, tutorials and student support online, making campuses COVID safe. Nevertheless, the pandemic and its consequences jeopardised the marketised university model, with a loss of vital commercial income and international tuition fees, threatening finances. A number of universities moved quickly to threaten jobs – Napier University in early summer and Heriot Watt in August 2020, where 130 jobs were put at risk. UCU’s Heriot Watt branch organised to oppose cuts, engage members, and save jobs. The branch demonstrated that a strong ballot mandate is possible in a home-working situation by effective organising, communication, leadership and campaigning. Branch negotiators harnessed a broad alliance to save jobs: from alumnus, author and journalist Gary Younge, to local politicians including Conservative MP, John Lamont, whose constituency covers Heriot Watt’s borders campus. The collective power of our members, politicians, alumni and students, mobilised the membership to vote, securing a strong ballot mandate, and leveraging the negotiating clout to get a positive deal from the threat of cuts.

The financial pressures of the pandemic come on top of the year-on-year cuts to university funding, meted out in subsequent Scottish Budgets over the last number of years. So, the real-term increase this year was a relief but it failed to address the years of below inflation settlements and the consistent underfunding of teaching in our universities. February saw some additional funding announcements to reduce student hardship, as well as one-off money for research and revenue budget lines. All of this is much needed for universities, and UCU has urged government and the Scottish Funding Council to ensure that the additional funds go towards preserving jobs – which in turn enhances the student experience.

As we enter this strange Scottish election period, fair funding for universities, especially fully funding teaching, is a key demand for UCU. Universities should be powering Scotland out of recession with an education-led recovery. Now is the time to invest in education, skills and development – for young people and older learners returning to university. We need a greater injection of funding to enable them to do so effectively. We’re also calling for more action to address casualisation in the sector, and to implement one of the remaining demands of the von Prodzynski governance report of a decade ago on principals’ pay: to ensure that the pay of senior managers relates to the rest of the workforce, ending excesses at the top. Another key priority must be to ensure that Scottish universities remain outward facing international institutions that welcome staff, students and ideas from across the globe.

Predictably, Brexit is having a damaging impact upon the sector and UCU’s members. As a sector which has a high number of EU and international staff, it’s hardly surprising that in lockdown some EU staff have returned home to look after sick parents or relatives while continuing to deliver lectures or work remotely. However, more employers are becoming concerned at the liabilities of employing workers in a foreign jurisdiction, and Brexit simply does not allow the flexibility that could help EU staff who may need to support families at home during this global pandemic. This is tough on those torn between home commitments and their employment.

Fortunately, international student applications remain strong but EU student applications to Scottish universities have halved for entry in September 2021. We urgently need support for EU students so as our campuses continue to benefit from their diversity and cultural input. There’s considerable disappointment that the UK government did not agree to continue in the Erasmus Plus exchange scheme, which offers reciprocal educational and cultural benefits to students and staff in schools, colleges, universities and apprenticeships. Instead, we have the inferior ‘Turing’ scheme from the UK government, which treats international students as cash cows, provides around £83m less than the UK was receiving via Erasmus, and most frustratingly, but inevitably, is a one-way scheme – there’s no reciprocity.

Brexit was never going to be easy for a higher education system which is enriched by the diversity of staff and students, and the sharing of knowledge and ideas across boundaries and borders. UCU, along with the Scottish Government and employers, has worked to ensure EU and international staff are aware of their rights and changes to their immigration status. However, we are bracing ourselves for 30 June 2021, the deadline EU citizens have to apply for settled status.

The UK’s exit from Europe, along with 2019’s landslide victory for the Johnson-led Conservatives at Westminster, and the perceived differences in the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, has increased calls for ‘indyref 2’. Indeed, UCU Scotland’s annual congress 2020, held later than normal last September, noted the calls for a second independence referendum and debated the issue. Our congress agreed that irrespective of the timing of any vote, and as set out in the 1989 claim of right signed up to by the STUC, it is the right of the people of Scotland to determine their future. Our union agreed that if a further referendum is held that UCU Scotland should engage in the debate and examine the issues, opportunities, threats and challenges to Scottish education, our economy, and society generally, to ensure that our universities are best placed for the future whatever the result of a referendum.

Mary Senior is UCU’s Scotland Official and the current president of the STUC