A UNISON survey published this week shows how university staff including cleaners, security guards and administrative workers are feeling increasingly anxious about work, now that universities have reopened.
Rebecca Hawkins* is a technical demonstrator in the art and design department of a university. She said: “I don’t feel safe at all. Every day presents a new challenge that nobody knows how to handle. I just feel like we’re all making it up as we go along, with sketchy guidelines that seem open to interpretation.
“We had an email from the dean the other day saying that someone in our group had tested positive, but we don’t have to self-isolate. As far as I’m aware, that goes against government guidelines.
“Everyone’s writing their own risk assessments, and it just feels like a ticking time bomb until there’s a big outbreak here. Since the students came back, it feels like I’m on the frontline.”
Rebecca’s university has split teaching 60-40 between physical and virtual. But Rebecca says it’s created a two-tiered system among staff: “All the academics are still at home in their slippers!”
More than 4,000 UNISON members completed the annual higher education survey, which exposed concerns about pay, working hours and the threat from COVID-19.
83% of higher education workers expressed fears about social distancing, and 45% said they were worried about a lack of personal protective equipment.
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.
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.
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.”
*To protect her identity we’re not using her real name.