Universities need an urgent financial injection to give them a fighting chance of coming out of this crisis.

A robust higher education sector will be central to getting this country through the pandemic, sustaining our public services and rebuilding the economy, but so far the government is failing to protect it.

Universities need stability: they’re doing vital research right now on vaccines, antibody tests, and tracking systems, and our country will rely on the sector to train the key workers of tomorrow.

The livelihoods of three quarters of a million people who work in higher education have been plunged into uncertainty, along with the £73 billion a year universities generate for our economy.

If some institutions are forced to cancel courses or close altogether that means jobs gone, student ambitions thwarted and our country all the poorer for it.

No MP should stand by while they teeter on the brink.

Let’s press the government to think bigger.

Write to your MP

If you’re in Cymru/Wales, we also have a template letter that will help you write to your Member of the Senedd and ask them to make sure the Welsh Government protects higher education in Wales.

What can branches do?

Higher education branches can use these template letters to ask other decision makers and influential people to back the campaign.

Why not let the vice-chancellor know about the campaign and get their support? Are there peers on your university’s governing board or working as staff? Could a council leader help defend education provision in the local community?

The template letters below are here to help so please add in details about your own institution and amend however you see fit.

Please also use these social media graphics, gifs and email headers to share the campaign far and wide.

Get the graphics

The support and solidarity of branches across the union would be very much appreciated. A vibrant higher education sector is a vital component and driver of quality public services.

Support from students

We’re really pleased that the National Union of Students (NUS) is backing our campaign to protect universities for all current and future students.

“As students, we need our higher education sector to survive this crisis. Universities and colleges are not just faceless providers of a product, they are entire communities. The government must provide meaningful financial support for higher education and, in doing so, protect the jobs of workers, the future of students and the economic survival of the UK; all of which would be greatly supported by a Student Safety Net. Education is a public good and a vital service which needs to be underwritten by the Government. We are proud to stand in solidarity with UNISON and all trade unions as we defend our universities and colleges.”

Claire Sosienski Smith, NUS Vice-President, Higher Education




  • What responsibilities does my employer have if I am working from home?

    The joint statement above makes clear that where staff are working from home or an alternative location, your employer should give appropriate consideration to risk assessments, make sure you have the equipment you need to do your job, and think about how to safeguard your mental and physical health.

    Your employer should also consider how you can stay connected with your colleagues and provide regular opportunities for virtual contact.

    Where staff are parents or carers, your employer should give consideration to flexible working hours now that schools are closed to the majority of children.

  • Can my employer ask me to use up my annual leave?

    This will depend on your contract of employment and your employer’s annual leave policy. If you have been asked to take your annual leave check your employer’s policy and talk to your UNISON branch.

  • How will my health and safety be protected?

    Universities need to properly risk assess the work that those staff who remain on campus are undertaking and provide the correct equipment as needed.

    We know that some technicians and cleaning staff may be needed to work in medical and nursing schools, and potentially in areas of possible contamination including laboratories and students’ accommodation.

    The joint statement above, agreed by the employers and unions, makes clear that risk assessments should be reviewed to ensure that government guidelines are met and that new risks are taken account of. See UNISON’s detailed FAQ page on personal protective equipment (PPE) for those who need it, and if you have any concerns speak to your local branch.

  • I’m more vulnerable – should I be asked to come in to work?

    We firmly believe that staff with certain health conditions or those who are pregnant should not be expected to come to work during this pandemic, as per government guidance on vulnerable groups.

    People living with someone who has been identified by the NHS as having underlying health conditions that put them at most serious risk, and now need to totally self-isolate, should also arrange with their university to work from home whatever their job is.

    You can find out if you are eligible for a coronavirus test on this government website. UNISON believes that testing should be much more widely available before educational institutions are reopened.

    If you have any concerns or queries please contact your local branch for advice.

  • Which staff can be asked to work on campus?

    Some universities may have to keep halls of residence open for students who don’t have any other home or who are unable to return to their home country. Some research labs also need to remain operational, especially where medical research is being carried out that may impact on the current pandemic.

    However, all universities should now have ended face to face teaching and most have moved this and other services online. The joint statement above makes it clear that only business critical staff carrying out essential services should be asked to come to work.

    UNISON has been in discussion with the government as to which roles should be defined as ‘business critical’. This might vary from campus to campus but if you have any questions or concerns please speak to your branch.

  • What should I do if I am asked to go back into the workplace?

    UNISON believes that all workplaces need to be as safe as possible before more staff start to go back to work. Most universities have had only essential workers on campus since lockdown began. UNISON branches across the UK are talking to universities about how to ensure that campuses are as safe as possible for staff, students and visitors before more staff go back to work.

    Nationally UNISON is raising these concerns at the Higher Education Safety and Health committee, with the national employers and with the government. We want to ensure that full risk assessments are undertaken and available to all staff, that any necessary additional resources are available and that those staff who need to remain working from home are able to do so.

    For more general information about risk assessments and what to do if you don’t feel safe at work, see our general advice page.

    If you have concerns about being asked to go back to work please contact your branch as soon as possible.

  • I’m worried I may be made redundant. What should I do?

    If you have reason to believe your job is under threat please seek advice from your local branch. You can contact UNISON via our online form. We are calling on employers to consult fully with the trade unions and to do everything that they can to protect jobs and wages in this fast-changing situation.

    This is a real concern for many universities at the moment. We know that the pandemic will have an economic impact on universities and many staff are worried about their job security. UNISON has raised these concerns with the minister for higher education (see letters at the top of this page) and similar concerns have been raised with the ministers in the devolved nations. UNISON is calling for national talks with university employers to include job security and HE funding.

    If you have been furloughed then you should note that the government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) has been extended until the end of October. You can find the details of this on the government’s website. This may mean that your employer is able to keep you on furlough for longer.

    UNISON also has a Q&A on furlough.

    Employers are legally obliged to consult with trade unions at the earliest opportunity if they are considering making redundancies. Employers also have to consult with staff and should try to find suitable alternative employment. You can find out about your rights if you do face redundancy.

    If you think your job is at risk please contact your UNISON branch as soon as possible.

  • What if I work for a private contractor?

    UNISON recognises that many employees working for a private contractor are in a vulnerable situation and need the support of their local branch. We want to make sure that you are treated fairly and that your jobs and incomes are protected.

    If you work for a contractor and are furloughed then UNISON believes that employers should ‘do the right thing’ and make sure that your pay is protected at 100% rather than the 80% provided by the government under the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme.

    If you are furloughed then you should talk to your local university UNISON branch to get advice and ask them to help you to get full pay if your employer is proposing to cut your wages to 80%. Check the links on our rights at work page to find out more.

  • What about my pay?

    UNISON is working hard to make sure that employment rights, jobs and wages are right at the top of the agenda for the government and employers. Your employer should continue to pay you according to your contract and terms and conditions of employment, unless another agreement is reached.

    If your employer suggests they might not pay you, or might not pay you in full, please keep records of any correspondence and contact your local branch.

    Meanwhile, the HE unions have submitted our pay claim for 2020-21. The joint unions and employers have agreed that national pay negotiations need to be delayed by COVID-19. This is being reviewed nationally and as soon as the process to negotiate pay for 2020/21 starts your UNISON branch will be informed.

  • How does ‘furlough’ work in higher education?

    What is the Job Retention scheme and what is ‘being furloughed’?

    UNISON’s website has lots of information on what ‘furlough’ means as well as information on the government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme.

    In brief, as a result of the coronavirus crisis many workplaces, including many universities, have been fully or partially closed and employees have been asked to work from home if they can. However, some jobs cannot be done from home – for example security and catering jobs – and some employers have therefore considered lay-offs and redundancies. The UK government has announced details of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme. Employers can use this scheme to retain their staff until they can reopen for business, rather than make staff redundant. They can ‘furlough’ employees and apply for a grant that covers 80% of their usual monthly wage costs.

    You can find out lots more information about being furloughed and the Job Retention Scheme on the main advice pages. For employers to claim from the JRS, employees will need to be furloughed for a minimum of three weeks.

    What is the government’s advice on how the Job Retention Scheme applies to education employers?

    You can read the government’s advice on how the scheme applies to educational settings – from early years through to higher education – on the government’s website.

    It is important to understand that the guidance is subject to what the Treasury Direction says and how employment law applies to existing rights in practice.

    I work for a university. Can I be furloughed?

    In short, the answer is ‘yes’.

    You may be asked to be furloughed if there is no work for you to do from home and if your job would otherwise have been made redundant – for example, if your job is dependent on sources of income that have ceased due to the coronavirus shutdown.  The decision is for the employer to take, but the legal basis for scheme states that it can be for any health, social or economic reason connected to coronavirus.

    The government guidance says that only jobs which are not government funded are eligible to apply to the Job Retention Scheme, but the Treasury Directive is silent on the point. In universities, funding comes from a multitude of different sources. Current government advice recognises this and allows universities to apply for the Job Retention Scheme if universities are clear that the they meet the criteria set out and that claiming public funds would not duplicate public funding that the institution has already received.

    If your employer wishes to claim the CJRS they will need to check that the five criteria set down in the government guidance is met. You can see the guidance in full on the government website.

    Employers who apply under the CJRS can only use that money received for that purpose (ie putting staff on furlough) and must immediately repay it to HMRC if ‘unwilling or unable’ to do so.

    UNISON is calling for all staff who are furloughed to continue to receive 100% of pay and to receive full pension contributions.

    If you are asked by your employer to agree to be furloughed please get in touch with your UNISON branch.

    My employer has asked me to agree to be furloughed. What should I do?

    It is important to understand that an employer cannot put an employee on furlough unless the individual consents.  Due to what the Treasury Direction states (ie the legislative basis for the scheme), the consent must be agreed in writing between the employer and the employee.

    If your employer approaches you about furloughing, please immediately contact your branch – it’s better not to sign anything until you have received advice. UNISON wants to try and secure 100% pay wherever possible for all staff who are furloughed.

    I work for a private catering company in a university. Can they furlough me?

    In short, the answer is ‘yes’.

    The Department for Education has confirmed that contractors that are funded out of public funds should continue to be paid and that in return contractors should continue to pay their staff normally.  However, because of the legal basis for the scheme, there are circumstances in which contractors may, potentially, be able to make a claim under the Government’s Job Retention Scheme (JRS).

    If some staff are needed at work to run a reduced service then you may be furloughed for a minimum of three weeks and then return to work whilst other staff are furloughed. You must not work while on furlough.

    UNISON is calling for all staff who are furloughed to continue to receive 100% of pay and to receive full pension contributions.

    If you are asked by your employer to agree to be furloughed please get in touch with your UNISON branch.