Friday, 15 June 2012

Defend In-House Services at University of Sussex

UoS Staff: join your union and get active in the campaign! 

Last month University of Sussex announced the “outsourcing” of 235 jobs, in effect privatising large swathes of support staff from catering and facilities, and the services they provide, including health and safety, and security. This has been met so far by a furious reaction from staff and students on campus, with meetings and demonstrations of hundreds having taken place in the short time period since the plans were announced.

Brighton and Hove Socialist Party

This is following a trend seen in higher education since the “Con-Dem” government announced the implementation of the recommendations of the Browne review, slashing up to 40% of the funding for higher education, trebling student tuition fees and overseeing an unprecedented wave of privatisation. The crisis of capitalism has left few profitable opportunities to big business. An estimated £750billion currently sits in the accounts of British banks and big business; vast funds which cannot be profitably invested due to the crisis. In response to this the Tory-Liberal Democrat government is making opportunities for the private sector to make profits from the public sector, Higher Education is no exception.

Universities like London Met that are facing massive cuts, and will struggle to attract students capable of paying £9,000 a year fees, are resorting to the sort of slash-and-burn privatisation now being pursued by Sussex, with plans to outsource up to 50% of support service staff. Management at some of the “elite” universities, such as Imperial College in London have even gone as far as to encourage the government to pursue total privatisation of entire universities, citing a need to remain “competitive”.

Competitive’ Universities

This idea of “competitive” universities in a market place of higher education represents the dreams of Tory ministers such as David Willets, as it would be an end to the idea of higher education being provided as a public good, and instead see universities transformed into profit pursuing private enterprises.

Instead of accepting the Con-Dem’s plans for higher education, university managements should be rejecting them across the board, and demanding government restore the money cut. This would be supported by the majority of staff and students within higher education, as seen by the mass public sector strikes on November 30th and June 30th last year which included thousands of university support staff and lecturers.

Unfortunately university Vice-Chancellors have a lot more in common with Tory ministers and the vultures in the private sector than they do with cleaners and caterers at universities. On average earning £330,000 a year, some much higher, vice-chancellors and other heads of management often float between companies in the private sector and university managements. So it comes as no surprise when like at Sussex they endorse plans to ship out services to their mates running private companies.

The Effects of Privatisation

Universities often try to justify privatisation by arguing it reduces “waste” spending and improves efficiency. In reality however it is a clear move to cut university spending on what management may see as “waste”, but are actually essential services for staff and students; a few weeks before the announcement, the students union was asked by management what made the university “unique” and responded that it was the committed and friendly staff! The same staff are now being rewarded by being farmed out to the private sector that is far more interested in making a profit than providing decent services.

This is part of a trend that has been seen across the public sector as a whole over the last decade, and is being rapidly accelerated by the Con-Dems as part of their drive for austerity.  Last year, from central government departments alone, more than 1,000 jobs were outsourced, with the private sector salivating at the prospects of the selling off of hundreds of services, in local government, the NHS and education.

To get an idea of what privatisation has in store for higher education workers, the health service provides some shocking examples. The introduction of PFI into much of the NHS by New Labour saw private companies such as Serco take up contracts to build hospitals and even run day to day services, and they are poised to extend their influence with the governments plans to open up the NHS to even more privatisation. This has had, and will continue to have, devastating consequences for staff and patients.

An investigation into NHS services run by Serco in Cornwall found that patient targets were largely missed or ignored, waiting lists got longer, many services were left critically understaffed and that patients were left at risk, with some in critical conditions being abandoned as a result of understaffing. Only 55% of emergencies received a response within an hour during a peak month in 2006.

Serco has also been criticised by the RCN for plans to cut 40% of nurses in out of hours doctors services across Cornwall, this from the same company that generated revenue of £4.6bn in 2011! It is clear where private companies interests lie when they take over the running of public services, and it is not the ordinary people who rely on the services and help provide them.

G4S, a company that runs many immigration detention centres in Britain, as well as many other former public services has been widely criticised for its treatment of detainees, with negligence and brutality widely reported. Yet again profit and cost cutting is put ahead of care and delivering services in a way that benefits ordinary people.

The same rings true in education. The mass privatisation of the school system currently taking place with the academy scheme is seeing private companies taking over schools, leaving them free to alter the pay and conditions of teachers and support staff. Not surprisingly in many cases this has been wages fall, job security lost and pension rights shelved.

In the US, where privatisation is much more common place, particularly in the education system, similar effects are notable. Sodexo, a private company that runs the catering in many US schools was found to be pocketing cash rebates meant for schools worth up to $20m a year! While a report into the contracting out of school transport, which many students rely on, found that the privatisation of up 72% of school transport services in Pennsylvania by 2008 increased costs to the state by roughly $223,861!

Stop the Cuts – Oppose Privatisation

This is not a coincidence but a direct symptom of privatised services, itself a symptom of the austerity measures being forced on society by the Con-Dem government. This represents a concerted effort by the capitalist class and their henchmen in the three main parties, to suck every last bit of wealth held by and spent on ordinary people into the coffers of their millionaire friends throughout the private sector and the banks, even though it was that section of society that plunged us into the ongoing economic crisis.

An estimated £750bn in Britain alone, is sitting idle in the bank accounts of private companies unwilling to invest where they cannot make a guaranteed profit. This money could be used to invest heavily in education, health, housing and public services, but instead of taking it off the rich to do this, the government is making much of the public sector available for these private companies to snap up, cut wages and jobs, and make more profit to squirrel away in tax havens.

The privatisation at Sussex is part of this agenda and must be resisted by workers and students as part of a united democratic struggle, carrying the message – education for public need, not private greed!

Where next for the campaign?

We immediately proposed forming a ‘committee of action’ with a majority of members from amongst directly affected staff. Members of the UNISON, Unite and UCU branch committees should also be present and negotiators should be accountable to this committee and mass meetings of the catering and facilities staff. This would be the first step in the campaign which so far has included demonstrations of staff and students against the meetings of prospective contract holders.

Despite being presented as vulnerable support staff are in fact the most powerful workers in the University – as demonstrated by UNISON University of Brighton branch whose solid pickets on 30 November forced the University to close. Campus unions are still awaiting a response from the University management on a number of key questions – any one of which could form the basis of the campaign of industrial action which will be necessary to successfully oppose this sell-off.

It would still be possible to take strike action on the basis of a change to the identity of the employer – and Socialist Party members in the campus unions are working to ensure that the necessary preparations are made as soon as possible, and with the full support and leadership of the affected workers.

Management will attempt to ‘divide and rule’ and try to persuade some members that it is in their interests to go along with privatisation and rely solely on legal protection such as the ‘TUPE’ regulations (Transfer of Undertakings in Public Enterprises). When this argument has been accepted by union negotiators, it has invariably led to cuts in services and conditions.
Union members and activists should be under no illusions that management can be persuaded by the power of argument alone. Pressure can and must be applied, up to and including industrial action, if management insist on this course of action. An indicative ballot should be held as soon as possible to establish that workers affected are prepared to resist privatisation by all means necessary including ‘work to rule’ and strikes, rather than trade jobs and public money for minor concessions for a minority.

Once there is a majority for action we can discuss how best to pressurise management if they still refuse to listen to staff and students. This might include withholding services from corporate conferences over the vacation, or action directed at degree ceremonies or the registration period in the autumn. This needs to be decided democratically by the members affected after discussion with the wider campus community.

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