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Responding to Covid-19 in Higher Education with leadership, compassion, courage and justice

Covid-19 presents the University of Sussex with unprecedented threats and challenges, and we must be guided by the principles of compassion, courage and justice.

This is a fast-moving situation that is changing the way we live, work and care for those around us. The University of Sussex is at the centre of the lives of its students and workforce, and also firmly rooted in the local community, particularly local NHS services. We believe the University's management must take a lead in responding to these challenges in a proactive and pro-community way. From providing expert scientific advice, to treating its lowest-paid staff and most precarious students with compassion and respect, the University has an important role to play in providing moral and practical leadership. It can set the tone across the HE sector for good governance based on humane politics.


Higher Education: a new set of priorities


Over the coming weeks and months, staff and students will be facing daily struggles with both their own health and their caring responsibilities. They are likely to be supporting vulnerable relatives, homeschooling their children and taking on community support roles. Staff will also be providing urgent pastoral care to students, many of whom are far from home, and may be facing life-changing crises.


We believe the University must be guided by its duty of care for the physical health and mental well-being of every member of our community, as well as by its responsibility to support staff in delivering the best for their students. This means protecting precarious employees, acknowledging the complexities of personal circumstances and readjusting workloads, so that all staff can focus on supporting students and providing them with the best education possible under difficult and ever-changing circumstances. Our staff are well placed to do this and can be trusted to make the right judgements in prioritising quality pedagogy in a pressing situation.


The University’s ethical responsibility is to ensure that neither staff nor students face unsustainable and unreasonable burdens in continuing their work. Staff working conditions are students’ learning conditions and vice versa. This is the case now more than ever before, because of the collective challenge of learning in a time of social distancing.


University workers and unions rise to the challenge


The efforts of all staff, academic and non-academic, in supporting students and colleagues in this stressful and rapidly changing context have been inspirational. They have responded with energy, creativity, and commitment, working around the clock to alleviate disruption to students’ education and to provide additional pedagogical and pastoral support. This would, at any time, be commendable. In the face of the personal challenges outlined above, it is exceptional.


Alongside their colleagues, UCU members (including professional service as well as academic staff) have willingly taken on additional work - far above and beyond their regular duties. Despite their ongoing Action Short of Strike, and failure of Higher Education leaders to settle on fair wages, pensions and working structures, UCU members have stepped up in support of their students, their colleagues and the University, and have taken the lead in establishing community aid at Sussex and beyond. They have acted in the spirit of solidarity, with integrity and professionalism: the same qualities that have guided their recent and ongoing industrial action. The principles of this action have not been forgotten, only now UCU turns its attention to ensure that health protections and material means of living are distributed equally across the HE sector.


In the context of a bitter dispute over working conditions and structural inequalities in Higher Education, the swift and responsible action taken by workers at Sussex over the past week is a sign of our shifted priorities and a gesture of immense goodwill towards the senior management team. It is the surest of signals that staff - including dedicated trade unionists - are prepared to help the Executive get the University of Sussex through this crisis.


A call for compassionate and courageous leadership


King’s College London (KCL) has paved the way for appropriate and humane Executive action. KCL, like St Andrew’s and Birkbeck, has cancelled strike deductions to match the goodwill shown by UCU members, many of whom are on short-term contracts with no guarantee of paid employment ahead of them, and who are nevertheless working long hours to respond to the challenging circumstances with which they are confronted. KCL has also provided a range of assurances and options for paid leave for those members of staff who have crises of care in their own families and local communities.


That is a model for the compassionate and courageous leadership we expect in Higher Education: an Executive that supports its employees to support their students, colleagues, families and local communities. We hope that the University of Sussex Executive Group will be able to act in the same spirit by: providing protections for non-academic and outsourced workers; revisiting strike deductions for UCU members; putting in place assurances to ease the pressure on those with caring responsibilities and on disabled staff and students; and giving its fullest practical support to international students.


We recognise that this is a challenging time for university leaders across the country. Not only do they face the immediate pressures of this semester, but travel restrictions will impact recruitment for next year. We are reassured to note that the Office for Students has pledged to support the sector through this crisis, and we look to Sussex management to take the lead in representing the interests of the University and the wider education community in this process. We will give them every support in doing so, particularly by modelling the role of the University as a public good in difficult times.


The situation is uncertain and unsettling. Yet, we have every faith that the University of Sussex will come through it as a strong and united community. This may mean drawing on its reserve funds [1] and redistributing the greatest burdens to those most able to bear them.[2] It must mean proactively supporting staff to be responsible citizens and caregivers. It cannot mean abandoning our duty of care to the most vulnerable amongst us, regardless of visa status or contract type.


We already know that the effects of Covid-19 will fall hardest on the most disadvantaged; the University of Sussex must do all it can to mitigate these effects amongst its own staff and students. We believe the needs of the most vulnerable and precarious should drive our response to this crisis, and Sussex UCU wants to work with our employers to prioritise the safety, well-being and financial security of all in our community.[3] The University of Sussex Executive has the opportunity to show compassion, courage and moral leadership in these most challenging of times. It must rise to the occasion.


Sussex UCU Executive Committee


 

[1] The University reported an annual operating surplus of £23.9m, plus reserves of £350m, for the year 2018-19.

[2] The University reported that in 2019, 64 of its employees earned over £100,000.

[3] On 14 March, Sussex UCU wrote to Sussex management setting out actions and assurances we felt needed to underpin the University’s response to Covid-19: http://bit.ly/SussexCOVID-19. Sussex UCU Executive further supported an open letter, signed by over 400 Sussex academics, calling on 16 March for the University’s protection of its non-academic staff, many of whom are among the lowest-paid in the University community.

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