Survey reveals staff fears ahead of universities reopening

Pay, working hours and the threat from Covid-19 are major concerns

University staff including cleaners, security guards and administrative workers are facing a perfect storm of pressures that are leaving them out of pocket, and feeling increasingly anxious, a UNISON survey published today (Wednesday) has found.

More than 4,000 employees completed the union’s annual higher education survey, which exposed concerns about pay, working hours and the threat from Covid-19.

Three in five staff (60%) expressed anxiety about the return to campuses at the end of the month. Fears about social distancing (83%), a lack of personal protective equipment (45%) and the threat of exposure to the virus on public transport (45%), all contributed to the general sense of staff unease, says UNISON.

Worryingly, more than a third (36.4%) haven’t yet received a Covid-19 risk assessment, according to the survey. This is despite the Universities and Colleges Employers’ Association (UCEA) and Universities UK (UUK) recommending support staff be at the heart of safety planning ahead of any return, the union says.

More than a fifth (23%) of staff said they were from vulnerable health groups – putting them at greater risk of being hospitalised if they contracted the virus. This group, which includes Black* staff, were particularly anxious about returning to campuses.

Despite their heightened risk, 18% of university support staff said their employer hadn’t provided them with any support. Two fifths (41%) said they’d like more support ahead of the return, says UNISON.

Encouragingly, a similar proportion (40%) reported receiving excellent support from their managers, highlighting what can be achieved when responsible universities work with staff and unions, says UNISON.

When asked about pay, more than a third (35%) said their salaries hadn’t kept pace with increases in their mortgages or rent. This suggests that after a decade of below-inflation pay deals, staff are struggling to make ends meet, says UNISON.

More than three fifths (62%) were worried about losing their jobs, with concerns about the impact of Brexit (55%), government policies (54%), and work-related stress (49%) fuelling job insecurity fears, UNISON adds.

Commenting on the findings, UNISON head of education Jon Richards said: “Staff are worried about returning to campuses, they’re struggling to pay their bills and they’re tired of managers not listening to them.

“University support staff have serious concerns about their employers’ disregard for their wellbeing and government indifference to their financial and physical plight.

“Universities must make sure risk assessments are carried out and implemented before the start of term. The government must ensure staff aren’t forgotten in the headlong rush for universities to open up again.

“Fair and sustainable funding for universities has to be in place to protect the sector and jobs. The stakes are too high to do anything less.”

Note to editors:

 – A number of support staff ​have shared their concerns with UNISON:
–  “My employer’s done a reasonable job with risk assessments, but I’m worried about the government’s inability to get the test and trace system running effectively. Testing is inadequate. I expect a second wave of the virus when students return.”
  – “The ‘bubble’ situation is ridiculous.  Our bubble of students go back to halls to enter another bubble. But those students are all in another bubble and so it continues. The ‘bubble’ system is unsustainable.”
–  “I have no idea what has been put in place. I am very worried about ‘hot desking’ when I return.”
– *UNISON uses the term Black in a broad, political and inclusive way for people with shared history and experience of racism and reduced opportunities.
– UNISON is the UK’s largest union, with more than 1.3 million members providing public services – in education, local government, the NHS, police service and energy. They are employed in both the public and private sectors.

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