When I was at primary school, one of the things they did to keep us occupied was make us perform a strange, tuneless chant about a factory worker named Joe. ‘Hi!’ we would shout. ‘My name’s Joe! And I work in a button fac-tor-ee. One day, my boss came to me and said “Joe! Are you busy?” I said “No!”’ As the chant developed, poor Joe would be given more and more instructions. First it was ‘Push this button with you right hand!’ and we would have to jab our right index fingers rhythmically in the air while continuing to chant. Then it was the left hand, then the right foot, then the left foot, then the head. I don’t remember there being any natural stopping point. It just went on until we made mistakes, forgetting some of the ‘buttons’ or losing our balance and falling over.

I thought of Joe the other week, when I received a draft of my department’s teaching allocation for the next academic year. It has me down to spend the autumn term teaching a course I have taught a couple of times before, which normally comes with two graduate teaching assistants (GTAs) because of the high number of ‘contact hours’ it involves. Even with this invaluable assistance, the course is considered a ‘full load’: the maximum amount of weekly teaching, preparation, marking and associated admin tasks it is possible to do without losing your balance and falling over.

But the University of Essex says that, because of the Covid-19 pandemic, there may be no funds to pay GTAs or renew the contracts of temporary staff next year. Instead, a colleague with her own full-time lectureship would double as one of my GTAs. I would also be expected to ‘shadow’ two of my other colleagues, ready to take over if either of them should succumb to the coronavirus or be otherwise incapacitated. Someone else would be shadowing me. We would all have to make sure that our shadows are kept abreast of everything we are teaching so they could step in should we fall over.

In the spring term, I would teach two more courses, again with no GTAs, while shadowing a third and keeping my own two shadows in the loop. Thanks to the introduction of ‘intensive’ five-week summer modules – an initiative designed to enhance our ‘contact hours’ score on the university league tables – it doesn’t stop there. And everything must be prepared for ‘dual delivery’ – online as well as face-to-face teaching – in case overseas students, in particular, are prevented from travelling to take up their places in person. Push this button with your face.

Even if, by some miracle, nobody has to go off sick, it’s barely possible. It’s a plan ostensibly designed to deal with the likelihood of higher than usual levels of staff illness and absence, which in practice relies on nobody getting ill. Meanwhile, those who relied on the work that has been cut – the graduate students who need it to top up or replace inadequate or missing funding; the temporary staff who survive from one short-term contract to the next – will be left unable to pay the rent, thrown on the mercy of a job market that currently does not exist.

The only way to protect the welfare of staff and the education of students during the current crisis is to invest extra resources in teaching: to assign funds for shadowing and support roles, with decent pay and conditions. The University of Essex has done the opposite. Like a number of other institutions, it claims there is no alternative: however painful, cuts are necessary now in order to avoid worse pain in the future. Sound familiar? Many who work in universities, though, are persuaded by the argument that this is different: at this time, in this place, there really is no alternative. It is true that universities are not states, and that they are constrained – thanks to the actions of recent governments – in ways that governments are not. Now that universities are almost entirely dependent on student fees for their income, even a temporary drop in numbers is potentially catastrophic. Universities cannot renationalise themselves, or issue bonds.

But there are strong parallels between austerity at a national level and at the level of universities. In both cases, the claim that ‘there is no alternative’ masks a statement of priorities. Over recent years, universities have squeezed the proportion of spending that goes on staff, even as they accumulate record surpluses. Essex, while shedding crocodile tears over the ‘unavoidable’ loss of its lowest paid and most precarious workers, continues to splash money on everything from online dance classes to ‘resilience training’, and has more than seventy higher-tier employees on salaries over £100,000 (the vice-chancellor’s pay and benefits alone come in at just short of £400,000 a year).

The measures being pursued at Essex and other universities in response to the pandemic are likely to be counterproductive to their avowed purpose, much as austerity was counterproductive for the UK economy. Among the predictable consequences of axing crucial teaching positions is that graduate students unable to fund their studies will drop out, along with the fees they pay, removing a source of income and harming the ‘completion’ rates so prized by the administration. Overstretched or absent staff will be unable to provide the ‘student experience’ that our employers profess to value above all else. Departments or even entire institutions may close, bringing job losses that university managers claim to be eager to avoid.

But, as with austerity at a national level, a crisis is providing a pretext for forcing through an agenda that those in positions of power at universities have long wanted and planned for (the management of Sussex University are unusual only in making this more explicit than most). Behind an apparently self-defeating programme of action stand its ideologues and beneficiaries: the private education ‘providers’ already preparing to cash in on the expanded provision of online courses, and their functionaries in senior management.

Austerity is a political choice. This is true of academic austerity, too. It will not end when the pandemic is over. It will not be appeased by our ‘good will’ and compliance. It will not stop at catering staff, graduate students or academics on casual contracts. While management shower us with applause and appreciation – clap for Joe! – there will be no mercy when permanent staff, too, face the axe. There will be no alternative then, either.