Outsourcing battle at Sussex Uni: censorship, dictat and the mutation of managerialism

Yesterday, thousands of students from around the UK joined the University of Sussex protesters against outsourcing. Maia Pal, a supporter from the beginning, gives the facts on a fight at the heart of the movement against higher education privatisation.

In November of last year, I published a call on OurKingdom for Sussex University to further its battle against the outsourcing of 235 members of staff, learning from the example of London Metropolitan University. At that time, the campaign was already six months old; we were holding fortnightly meetings, along with campus demonstrations and actions. On 7 February, we took the next step and occupied a university conference room. Yesterday, thousands joined the protest from around Britain, culminating in a General Meeting with representation from more than 20 universities.

Today, the occupation has published word that a High Court injunction has been taken out against the occupation to ban all protest that doesn't have the consent of management on the campus until September. The reaction from university authorities thus far appears to reveal a reshaping of the role of HE senior management and a dangerous mutation of the definition in practice of 'consultation' and 'discussion'. Analysis of events at Sussex can provide a useful template to which other examples may be compared.

'Discussion' as dictate, and downplaying numbers

In response to the initial occupation, the university issued a statement saying "the issues which [students] are protesting about are already the subject of discussion through the proper processes”. Yet, the facts of the matter contradict this claim. ‘Discussion’ and ‘proper processes’ appear to have been redefined by the university management as ‘instruction’, ‘imposition’, and ‘bureaucratic moderation’, albeit within proper and established channels. 

Here's what really happened. 

Firstly, on 26 February 2013, nearly a month after the occupation began, a meeting was organised between the management, represented by the Registrar John Duffy, and delegations of occupying students, Student Union officers, trade union representatives and members of academic and non-academic staff. 

- John Duffy (Registrar): We have no intention of halting the process.

- Michael (student delegate): So just to confirm, you're saying under no circumstances, you will be halting this process?

- JD: That’s correct.

- M: No circumstances, that’s to say if every member of student, staff, and faculty were standing outside your office demanding that you stopped, you still would not?

- JD: We're in a process that’s long done[1].

Thus, from this point in time, absolutely no process has the potential to halt or influence management’s plans, regardless of the stength of opposition. Strangely though, in John Duffy’s recent letter to the Guardian, the Registar radically downplayed the numbers supporting the campaign: “the occupation involves ‘dozens’ of students – out of a student body of 13,000.”

In fact, thousands of people support the campaign, evidenced through its petition and statements of support (including Noam Chomsky, Will Self, Ken Loach, Peter Capaldi, growing numbers of MPs, and hundreds of academics worldwide), and the dozens of academic and staff offices on the Sussex campus with a yellow square  (the campaign’s symbol) posted to their windows, these numbers remain meaningless, as confirmed by the above meeting.

Yellow flag of the protestors. Image: Sussex Against Privatisation

What counts, however, are the procedures that led to the announcement and justification of the outsourcing. Does the claim that the processes of discussion had already occurred stand up to scrutiny? Has the occupation, much like the stereotypical lazy student getting up at midday, just missed the boat?

Well, no. If the bidding process was announced in May 2012, this was as a fait accompli, and to the complete surprise of trade unions, students and staff. A European wide tender was issued, and no further information, whether over the name of the bidders or the terms of the contracts negotiated, has been revealed, let alone ‘properly discussed’. Unless, of course, discussion only refers to a process where one party informs the other of a certain outcome. Either way, this certainly does not fall inside the remit of the term ‘consultation’.

In effect, the plan to outsource 10% of the campus’s workforce, from porters, to caterers, and security staff, has been a unilateral, confidential and non-negotiable process. However, it has been contested by staff, students and unions from its inception, and still ever more strongly today.

The role of the Council

To be fair, there was some measure of approval sought. There was a meeting of Council (one of the University’s governing bodies) in November 2012. Now, did this constitute a ‘proper process’ of discussion? Again, unfortunately, it did not.

On a practical level, Council is composed of a wide variety of members, mostly external to the University, and thus inevitably distant from the more local, specific and most recent developments on campus. With even the best of intentions, external Council members have a difficult task. They are asked to comment on and approve a long list of measures and processes. That day, outsourcing was only one item on the meeting’s agenda, and a subgroup of 3 members had been asked to report back on the issue.

The first problem, therefore, is that only 3 members of Council were able to comment to the rest of the group on a process affecting a campus of 13,000 students and 2000 staff members, and of which the details and procedures are not to be made public[2]. Secondly, and even more worryingly, there is an emerging scandal concerning censorship over information communicated between Council members.

Censorship and scandal

On 4 March 2013, UCU issued a press release lamenting this alarming state of affairs. “Members of the university’s ruling body - the Council - have been told not to engage with the trade unions and there are now concerns the Council’s email list is being censored.” Council members are being actively prevented from even discussing whether to receive information from trade unions concerning outsourcing, let alone the actual process itself. 

In effect, the claimed reality of ‘proper processes’ vanishes again. This time, once the details of Council’s procedures emerge, the possibility of discussion and actual consultation fades away behind the unrepresentative and moderated methods used by management.

Even if management is found to have followed existing and approved university procedures, it should nevertheless be made clear that it was not bound to follow such a non-transparent and top-down process. It could have chosen a morally and socially fairer road through which to propose and develop plans to transform the operation of the campus services.

Getting the facts straight: what are the protestors proposing? 

The workers affected are not against change per se; they just think that more experts and affected participants should be involved in the elaboration of any large-scale plans. And they are right to be concerned, as outsourcing by companies such as Sodexo, rumoured to be one of the providers, are already leading to industrial disputes and campaigns.

Finally, there is also a growing dispute between management and members of the university over what constitutes freedom of expression, and how to interpret a fundamental article of the University Charter. One member of the 235, and active UCU union rep, has been singled out and forbidden to use a picture of the campaign’s badge at the bottom of any university email correspondence.

Academic staff have angrily, but very rationally, reacted against this curtailment of people’s right to express their opinions. They also argue that targeting one person is completely disproportionate and non-coincidental, and against existing European case law[3]. Unfortunately, attacks on union members are nothing new, and are occurring in universities such as London Met that have also been considering outsourcing on a large scale.

In light of these arguments, it is more than legitimate to request a halt to the outsourcing process at Sussex. In fact, it should be our duty, in order to ‘properly’ investigate the procedures that led to its announcement and post-facto justification.

As an ensemble of staff, students, and individuals concerned with the future of HE, one of the UK’s strongest sectors and employers, we need to get the facts straight. To do so, we need to give the ‘proper’ institutions (Chancellor, Council, Senate, trade unions, Student Union) the ability to consider whether an alternative to the current management of services is necessary, and if so, develop and compare different, i.e. in-house and external, scenarios. The demands of the occupation are completely in line with such a request.

Still according to John Duffy, “our services are suboptimal and disjointed”[4]. But, considering the present state of affairs and the apparent confusion as to what discussion and consultation mean in practice, a different assessment is emerging. Inevitably, more and more voices, on and off campus, are suggesting it is senior management’s performance that should be judged suboptimal. In our current economic situation, where outsourcing and marketisation remain the subjects of public debate, can we afford to make anymore large-scale mistakes in our leading, but alarmingly declining, HE sector?


Notes

[1] This meeting was recorded and filmed with the authorisation of all participants. We are currently working on uploading a video of this meeting, but if necessary, an audio-link is available. This passage can be found at 1h08min30sec.

[2] Furthermore, Council members were asked to sign a promise not to divulge any of the details or discussions of their meeting.

[3] Vajnai v. Hungary judgment of the European Court of Human Rights , 8 July 2008

[4] Meeting recorded Tuesday 26 February 2013. See footnote 1.

About the author

Maia Pal is a Doctor in International Relations and Associate Tutor at the University of Sussex.