Survey reveals staff fears ahead of universities reopening

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 this week has found.

More than 160 employees in the east of England 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%) said they were very worried about the return to campuses at the end of the month. Fears about social distancing (90%), a lack of personal protective equipment (45%) and the threat of exposure to the virus while travelling to work (31%), all contributed to the general sense of staff unease.

Worryingly, two-fifths (40.2%) have not 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.

More than a quarter (27%) 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, was particularly anxious about returning to campuses.

Despite their heightened risk, 17% of high-risk support staff said their employer hadn’t provided them with any good support. Half (50%) said they’d like more support ahead of the return, says UNISON.

The remaining third reported receiving excellent support from their managers, highlighting what can be achieved when responsible universities work with staff and unions.

When asked about pay, nearly a third (29%) said their salaries had not kept pace with increases in their mortgages or rent, while more than half (55%) said it was not keeping up with bills. This suggests that after a decade of below-inflation pay deals, staff are struggling to make ends meet.

Four fifths (79.7%) were worried about losing their jobs, with concerns about the impact of Brexit, government policies and work-related stress fuelling fears.

Commenting on the findings, UNISON Eastern universities lead Shane Hall 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.”

UNISON demands government action to safeguard jobs

The job retention scheme should be extended – or another wage support scheme put in its place – to support thousands of university staff, such as catering and security workers who face redundancy, education unions say today.

In a joint letter to higher education minister Michelle Donelan, UNISON, GMB, Unite, the University and College Union, and the Educational Institute of Scotland also warn problems with the test and trace system pose real risks to the health of staff, students and local communities.

UNISON senior education officer Ruth Levin said: “Thousands of university jobs hang in the balance, and sadly many support staff have already lost their jobs. More government help is a must.

“Ministers need to up their game too on testing. Delays in accessing tests and obtaining results are causing untold problems for universities. As more students return and infection rates rise, universities need to know there’s a testing system able to deliver what’s needed, and fast.”

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