By mid-September Scottish Government figures reported that 164 teachers had shown symptoms or had positive results, as well as 77 other members of staff. With contact tracers telling 753 teachers to stay home along with 447 other school workers, it is impossible to imagine how anything like a normal learning experience can be offered in some of the affected schools.
The School crisis was however eclipsed by the return of University students in the last few weeks. There have already been outbreaks on university campuses in Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, and St Andrews. It is the outbreak in the University of Glasgow’s Murano Street student village, though, that has received most attention. There 172 students so far, have tested positive for the virus, forcing more than 600 people into lockdown.
The unseemly haste in herding students back onto campuses has raised questions about preparation and more significantly motivation. In April a Scottish Funding Council ( SFC) paper predicted that universities would face operating deficits of between £383 million and £651 million in academic year 2020-21 alone. The SFC also said that the college sector would face significant challenges as a result of loss in income and increased costs. Most of the predicted loss was due to a drop in fee income from international students and in Scotland’s case that includes students from England who on top of tuition fees also pay handsomely for renting accommodation.
The economy was also an important, if more indirect, influencer in keeping the schools open, because parents could not get to work if they were looking after their children.
The fact that predicted losses in the university sector are now not estimated to be as high early estimates suggests that students have been persuaded to overcome fears of infection and lockdowns and in so doing help university finances.
In the longer term the Scottish left needs to demand that we fund our education system at all levels properly and that we don’t become dependent on the use of fees (elitist in any case) to fund central aspects of our higher education system.
In the more immediate term the Scottish Labour Left should support the joint union statement sent to the higher education minister Michelle Donelan. The letter, signed by Unite, Unison, GMB, UCU and the EIS called on the government to put a working test-and-trace system in place as a matter of urgency to control infections on campuses and it also called on the government to extend the job-retention scheme to safeguard thousands of support staff at universities who otherwise face redundancy.
This is critical given that Heriot Watt, for example, has already announced 130 jobs in academic and academic related areas will be cut because of the pandemic. Other employers will no doubt seize this opportunity to reduce wage bills. As am immediate priority the Scottish Labour Left must moblise to stop that happening.