Students and education workers must organise for safe, free education

By South Belfast Socialist Party

Queen’s University now joins Glasgow and Manchester in locking down halls of residence due to Covid-19 outbreaks. Within the first week of the university term, 30 students in Elms Village in south Belfast have tested positive for the virus. Fears of rising infection rates and the limitations of health and safety measures have been ignored by management in favour of forcing lecturers, support staff and students to participate in in-person classes without a uniform policy of sanitisation, mask-wearing and social distancing. 

Universities and landlords in Northern Ireland have pushed for a reopening to trap students into leases for accommodation they could have done without, and fees of up to £4,395 for what could be carried out by remote learning. This has meant thousands of students have moved home, creating a predictably massive spreading event. 

The jump in Covid-19 transmission rates is down to the rushed re-opening of the economy by Stormont and the Tories. To deflect blame, politicians and the media have pointed to instances of anti-social behaviour and lack of social distancing in recent weeks by some students. This happened mere days after the government’s ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme closed and the reopening of ‘wet’ pubs. In reality, students and workers in higher education have largely followed the inconsistent and confusing rules, both in the local community and on campus, with the majority of those charged for breaches in the Holylands area of south Belfast not actually being students.

The behaviour of the minority is still a risk to the entire population and should not be allowed to continue under new quarantine rules. However, repressive fines, tracking students from police vehicles, and the media’s narrative of disproportionate blame has not led to anything other than more stress on young people, while facilitating the hypocritical maneuvering of politicians to shift blame without addressing the faults in their pandemic strategy. Instead students, education workers and local communities could organise their own community support groups to implement effective public health measures.

While asking students to self-isolate is reasonable, Queen’s must not repeat the mistakes of Manchester and Glasgow Universities, with students simply being locked down without any warning or support, using private security firms and the police to barricade students in buildings, threatening university disciplinary action for those who refuse and threats that students may not be allowed to leave their accommodation in time for Christmas. The locking-in of students in Manchester and Glasgow is a realisation of fears many had of the repressive nature of these emergency Covid powers. 

Education workers’ fears vindicated

University lecturers and support staff are being bullied into teaching in-person despite their call for remote learning when plans for the new academic year were being discussed. This would have prevented the mixing of over 2 million students and hundreds of thousands of staff. It’s no wonder the University & College Union has warned that universities could become “the care homes of a Covid second wave”. 

Instead, the Tory approach – embraced by Stormont – has been to prioritise the financial interests of university managements and big business in general over public health.

What’s needed now:

Get organised: Solidarity between students being locked down in Manchester, Glasgow and Belfast. Students aren’t to blame – the Tories and Stormont are! Students’ unions should fight for health & safety and oppose the scapegoating of students – if they don’t, students should organise independently

Link up with workers on campus: Demand remote learning and oppose any management disciplinary action against lecturers refusing to teach face to face – End precarious and low pay contracts for ancillary staff, such as cleaners, who are at risk due to management’s irresponsible policies

Take action on useless rents: Demand refunds of unused accommodation, whether owned by universities or private landlords. Glasgow students are threatening a rent strike and have won concessions, including a month’s free accommodation and food vouchers.

Free education, not for profit: Fight for free, publicly funded education – Scrap the fees – End zero-hour and a short term contracts, pay all campus staff a living wage – Fight for democratic control of universities by staff and students, so they can be run in the interests of society, not profit