On 7 March, the first case of coronavirus in Loughborough was confirmed after a student at Loughborough University tested positive. The university’s Vice Chancellor, Professor Robert Allison, was quick to send out an email reassuring staff and students that the threat was low and that, because “all guidance from Public Health England” was being followed to limit the spread further, the risk was being managed.

What the email was somewhat quieter about, however, was “VC Bob’s” plan to stop striking UCU workers from handing out leaflets “in the interests of public hygiene”. Failure to comply, we were told, would result in pickets being removed from campus. Needless to say, the VC’s “concern” to prevent paper exchanging hands hasn’t been extended to strikebreaking lecturers who are regularly handing out lecture notes, or to any of the other thousands of activities that see paper exchange hands in a university on a daily basis.

Indeed, the Library – where books will regularly change hands – was quick to reassure students that it was open as usual after a power outage last night. One could argue that the best way to stop paper exchanging hands “in the interests of public hygiene” would be to spread the strike into a full shutdown. We await the cold day in hell when “VC Bob” will help that happen.

The coronavirus outbreak is a real concern for many in the UK and appropriate measures must be taken to contain it. However, mirroring the actions of authorities elsewhere, the Vice-Chancellor’s pressure on the UCU has sought to exploit the panic to suppress the rights to strike and public assembly. This comes just a month after Loughborough University was reported to the Office for Students by a number of staff and student groups for stifling free speech and protest and campus.

“VC Bob’s” attempts to undermine the strike and suppress student politics are repeated and consistent. At the same time, we see the university investing millions in building projects – lining the pockets of construction companies – while many casual workers on campus take home less than the minimum wage. “VC Bob” himself takes home somewhere in the region of £240,000, while real wages have fallen around 17% on average for staff since 2009. Contrary to his folksy “VC Bob” persona, Professor Robert Allison’s actions as Vice Chancellor expose him for what he really is: a representative of the interests of big business on campus. It is no wonder he wants to break the strike!

As the panic around the outbreak worsens, management up and down the country could look to follow “VC Bob’s” example in exploiting the coronavirus to undermine the strike. Wherever these underhand tactics are used by VCs and management nationally, the UCU leadership should refuse to accept anti-worker measures in the name of ‘containing’ the outbreak.

by Loughborough Marxist Society

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