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Education for sale: Sussex should learn from London Met

After the recent success of the union member-led campaign at London Metropolitan University against the outsourcing of its services, students and staff at Sussex need to lead a similar battle.

Maia Pal
1 November 2012
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Image: Marco Marini

Graduation ceremonies are peculiar events. Highlights are graduates and parents' relief, ridiculous costumes, and 'free' but terrible sparkling wine. In the last 10 years spent mostly as a student but also as casual academic staff, I have been through three such events. The last one, unfortunately, felt more like a funeral. And to add insult to injury, an auction of the deceased's goods is now well underway.

The most striking aspect of the graduation ritual is the conflict between on the one hand, the desire to maintain the image of medieval academic prestige, and, on the other, the reality of academic restructuring in Britain today. During Sussex University's graduation ceremony last summer, this conflict was shockingly displayed by a video inserted in between the traditional speeches and incessant stream of clapping and chancellor-hugging.

This video showcased the building improvements, the happy and pretty student faces, all contributing to giving parents a sense of a return on their investment. That and the wine, of course. Nowhere in this video or in the brief speech by the vice-chancellor, persona non grata Michael Farthing, were the other developments at Sussex under his reign mentioned. The sacking and 'voluntary redundancy’ of 110 academic staff, the whimsical and unpredictable moving of whole departments and schools in and out of temporary and, if lucky, fixed buildings, the heavy-handed use of police and authoritarian powers over student protestors, and most recently, the privatisation of most of the university services.

This last trick in Farthing and co.'s bag of magical solutions to face the twenty-first century, and legitimise his salary in excess of £220,000, is better known as 'outsourcing' or 'shared services'. This terminology helps to make people think that what is happening is new and better thought through than previous restructuring strategies. Crucially, it distances non-economists from the process, and makes people believe that they do not understand what is happening, and hence cannot fight against it. In military terms, this is a classic case of diversion.

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Image: Luke Cooper

Thankfully, staff and students have not all fallen for this cheap tactic. Since the rash announcement of the process in May this year, an online and on the ground campaign has been launched to understand, inform and fight against any measures detrimental to the existing rights and conditions of the 235 members of staff affected by the plans. These include catering, porters, estates management, security personnel, and more. In other words, the silent but constant mechanisms that make the university tick.

Fortnightly meetings have been held since August, uniting affected and not-yet affected staff, students and unions. Well attended demonstrations on campus were organised in the late Spring and at the beginning of the Autumn terms, as well as individual but very visible actions. High quality newsletters have been produced to inform students and staff. Important events have been organised with activists from other similar campaigns and successful struggles such as in Quebec. In sum, the momentum is growing and shows that the Sussex community exists and cannot be ignored by its management team. Nevertheless, success is still far ahead.

The unions (USSU, UCU, Unison and Unite) are still going through the processes of discussing different strategies and motions with their members. If they have been meeting with management, the progress of such encounters is still unclear. In any case, it remains very slow: after diversion comes silence. Whistling the day away in Sussex House, apparently the hub of cutting edge administrative restructuring, management seem to think ignoring staff and students is the best way to solve this problem. 

Because, indeed, there is a problem. And it is our problem, one we all need to think about and try to solve as a community. The problem is what do we want higher education to be?

Privatising services means restructuring their link to the central administrative organs of the university by selling them off to the highest bidder. This is based on the assumption that this process is detached from the problem of the qualitative changes in higher education. In fact, this is one of the main assumptions the campaign against privatisation should be fighting. Thinking that a university can be separated into distinct parts managed by different managerial boards is itself highly problematic and a product of our specific social and economic conjuncture.

But, worse, this separation between the management of educational services (lecturing, course administering, seminar teaching, marking, etc.) and the management of the services which make the former possible (catering, porters, building maintenance, security, etc.) is underlined by a social and moral hierarchy in the division of labour and in the stratification of people's statuses. Is the difference in salaries not already enough to set apart a head of school from the porter's office? No, apparently, now these jobs are so far apart that they do not even need to be part of the same managerial and financial institution.

Looked at from this angle, the current privatisation and segregation of services at Sussex - let alone in other sectors of the economy, as a result of the steady destruction of public services since the 1980s - have deep ideological roots and consequences. Deciding who pays the people who in effect run our educational establishments, is a problem about what we want education to be.

Surely we all want children and young adults to become people who find living in society more bearable, while also finding fair and better ways of distributing its burdens (some would say, to become better citizens). But, regardless of whether this occurs through learning about ideas, social processes, or mathematical formulae, the structure and model of where this learning occurs is absolutely crucial. The only way to foster solidarity, a sense of community and a balanced, open and as neutral as possible forum for individuals to become something more than just individuals, is to do so in an environment which is based on these principles.

Unfortunately, the current government has taken the opposite direction. If some have finally come to realise the disastrous consequences of abolishing the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA), and universities are struggling to keep student applications at their pre-tuition fee hike level, the mantra of liberalising the education system towards more career driven curricula and market driven funding remains dominant. Dismantling the structural foundations of our education establishments is one of the last cataclysms which will leave our future generations more sorry than safe. Dispersion and dissociation between different groups of service providers is the last thing a society struggling through different crises needs.

Instead, we need to herald and solidify the few structurally coherent institutions we have, so as to maintain a united front in the face of the uncertainties of the economic and environmental future. In fact, this would be a much better way of keeping the medieval heritage and prestige of our universities alive, so as to give meaning and substance to the awe-inspiring and colourful, but otherwise ridiculous, graduation costumes.

The medieval period is often harshly caricatured. But what it certainly did succeed in, apart from creating universities, is allowing for an extremely rich and complex diversity of views and social arrangements, while maintaining broad concepts and political structures that could accommodate that diversity. For all their difficult, poor and often short-lived social conditions, what we should remember from previous periods of our history rather than romanticise or chastise them, is the fact that their existence makes nothing in our present conditions inevitable.

The only constant, in fact, is struggle. Therefore, let's not give up on our services, and help the campaign at Sussex as well as others soon to emerge as privatisation continues to spread. It is essential to resist the dislocation of the structures that help us maintain a thick and lasting social fabric. To be clear, education should not be treated differentially to other sectors nor maintained as an elitist and secluded bubble. But, at the same time, this cannot mean we accept it follows the destiny of these sectors, abandoned to endless financial dissecting that renders transparent accountability and long-term ethical and socially aware decision-making impossible. Stop the auction, and help resuscitate our education system before it is too late.

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