Unis putting bottom lines before student safety in pandemic, says Oxford professor

He says unis are being forced to give students over-optimistic views of Freshers’ just to stay afloat

Universities are putting money before student safety by giving over-optimistic promises of campus life and face-to-face teaching in September, an Oxford professor has said.

Unis have little choice but to open and to try and attract as many students as possible, as the government’s threat to let some unis go bust means a fall in student numbers could pose an existential threat for unis, says higher education expert Simon Marginson.

“If institutions say that they expect to be solely online at the beginning of the 2020-21 academic year, they risk a collapse of enrolment. Arguably, students are receiving over optimistic claims about the possibility of reopening sooner, in order to lock them in,” Marginson wrote in a blog.

“The practical reason why institutions are forced to put their bottom lines ahead of public health and student welfare is that the UK government, true to the dynamics of the market, refuses to provide guarantees of funding and institutional survival,” Marginson added.

Last month, the government announced it would only bail out universities which met certain conditions, including clamping down on Vice Chancellor pay and protecting free speech. However, some universities will be allowed to go bust, with the government warning “not all providers will be prevented from exiting the market.”

Going beyond that particular announcement, Marginson also lays the blame for big promises and risky practices with the marketised university system, writing: “If institutions go bankrupt because it is impossible to sustain themselves it is their fault, and this can be celebrated as a healthy cleansing by market forces.

“It is not far from celebrating death itself as a healthy cleansing and in a global pandemic that is too close to the bone.

“It is a case of a highly individualist culture paying the price of its own extreme.”

Speaking to the Guardian, Marginson added: “The current position will be very difficult to manage. Students want to be together and they will bend the rules. Eighteen-year-olds throw off constraints – it’s what they do.”

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