The fourth week of the strikes by the UCU university staff union (9 to 13 March) saw twelve student occupations: UCL, University of the Arts London, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Imperial, Manchester, Exeter, Brighton, Glasgow, Nottingham and the Royal College of Art.
Sussex students blockaded multiple university car parks, Exeter students disrupted an open day, and Leeds students held a sit-in during a University Senate meeting, forcing it to be adjourned to a non-strike day. The Cambridge occupation expanded to take three floors of the Old Schools building, including the office of Chief Investment Officer and USS negotiator Anthony Odgers.
Staff and students at Kent stormed their Senate meeting to protest against upcoming huge cuts, including 500 compulsory redundancies.
Now many universities have started to shut down and go online because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Only Edinburgh is still in occupation. The UCU has decided to suspend the reballots necessary for further escalation of its dispute. On Friday 13 March many pickets were cancelled and teach-outs were moved “online” due to fears of infection.
The temporary suspension could mean a very damaging loss of momentum for the dispute. But the issues aren’t going away.
Student Strike Solidarity is continuing to hold regular online meetings to discuss plans for campaigning, particularly around Covid-19. Staff on short-term contracts have no guarantee that they will still have their jobs once the crisis eases, and zero-hours and outsourced staff still do not know if they will be entitled to sick pay.
Many students who work will struggle to cope if they self-isolate, lose their jobs or have hours cut. It is unclear what will happen to exams and coursework, when students will not have access to library resources and many will be ill.
Students in halls need assurances that they will not be charged rent if they leave university accommodation to return home. Normally, students can only exit the contract early if they find another to take over their room.
At SOAS (the School of Oriental and African Studies, in London), a student strike is planned after a cleaner was asked to clean a room contaminated with Covid-19 without personal protective equipment, and without being informed of the risk. Potential rent strikes are also being discussed by students living in halls, demanding they be allowed to leave their contracts early to avoid paying rent for accommodation they are not living in.
Staff and students should agree shared demands on management, including things like full sick pay, suspension of rent in halls, no attendance monitoring for online lectures, an end to outsourcing and zero-hours contracts, adequate hygiene provision, and representation for staff unions on committees set up to manage the crisis.