Privatising Higher Education

Queue here to pay debts.
Queue here to pay debts.

This article has been sent to us by a trade union activist who, due to the climate of intimidation prevailing in the sector, has asked to remain anonymous.

Policy which originated in the Higher Education (HE) White Paper is now very much a reality in British Higher Education. The White paper appeared late in 2011, but, due in part to opposition, is being implemented without legislation as the HE Privatisation Agenda.

This agenda seeks to  open Higher Education to private sector business models and private companies who gradually get more and more slices of the pie until they themselves become providers of Further & Higher Education.

The marketization of education is intrinsically linked to this as universities who lobbied government to introduce £9000 fees, introduce a market where education can be bought & students are supposed to be consumers.

University College London (UCL) have a Bloomsbury Master Plan which plans to transform the college’s appearance. Luxury apartments and a “social lounge for visitors” will displace the history department; and, most tellingly, the plans will increase the office space for managerial and estates departments fivefold – from 5% to 25%. UCL are also fundraising for three new institutions for medical research as well as pursuing plans to build a campus in Newham on an estate with long established sitting tenants who don’t wish to leave their homes.

As staff the first thing to be bought & sold are terms and conditions enshrined in agreements as trade union members. Manual workers have been outsourced to private companies. Staff who have worked for institutions for 30 years have had their pensions frozen and working lives transferred to private sector managers with the temporary protection of TUPE, which lasts until the terms and conditions are changed by the new company.

For directly employed staff, constant restructurings, redundancies and chronic increases in workload are part of the privatisation agenda, chipping away at public sector conditions, A new army of managers, brought into Higher Education in ever increasing numbers on ever increasing salaries, are enforcing private sector values that seek to cheapen public sector staff who are seen as a cost to the business. Even teaching is being seen as too expensive, as universities increasingly move away from education towards the brand whose purpose is to attract private donations and private finance for lucrative research.

Restructurings, bullying & harassment

In our fight to oppose this agenda in Higher Education as trade unionists we have up to now been mainly fighting defensive battles to keep what we have & to resist as much as we can privatisation and outsourcing.

Union reps are in the front line of confronting restructurings, bullying & harassment & institutional racism. through negotiations, representation of members & constant arguments through nonsensical management speak.  As well as strikes & bold campaigns by stronger branches, reps & branch officers are holding the line against the privatisation agenda.

However we need to move to unite as trade unions and students in an offensive collective struggle against the privatisation of Higher Education.

Opponents of plans to privatise the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN) are involved in a campaign to halt moves that would see the Lancashire institution change into a private company.

There is continued distrust of the vice chancellor’s assurances that there is no intention to privatise the university and that the university would take no action that jeopardised the current terms and conditions of staff. UNISON and UCU believe that the proposed change in status from a corporation to a company limited by guarantee is a preparatory step to restructuring the university to allow it to become a for-profit organisation.

Both unions believe that it should be strongly resisted. Hundreds of protestors have already signed a petition opposing the plans to divide the university into separate businesses, and UNISON and UCU are considering the declaration of a joint collective dispute and ways of further publicising their concerns.

The fight against the establishment of Shared Services is also a key battle for HE Trade Unions. The various models of Shared Services could involve, one university providing a service for the others – there may be a Transfer of Undertakings (TUPE) transfer to that university from others. This may be regarded as ‘in house’ shared services.

Alternatively the universities set up a new body (a private company) to provide services back to them.  There is a TUPE transfer to that company. This is a form of outsourcing under closer control. They jointly put out a contract to the private sector. This is privatisation.

The Shared Services model proposed at London Met would have removed all back office staff and put them in an arms-length body still owned by the university, but run by Capita or BT.


Active trade unionism


As well as the obvious dangers of removing public sector staff into a body run by a private company, two additional dangers apply. Staff may lose their jobs as the new company seeks to avoid duplication of staff doing similar work. Secondly, once this Shared Services model is established; it can then start bidding for work from neighbouring institutions, and take over services and departments.

Proposals at London Met were resisted by the active involvement of the branch and ordinary members, who through mobilisation & imaginative ideas publically exposed the private companies bidding for Shared Services and through publicity stunts targeted university management.

This is why I believe it is key that branches now seek to utilise the organising model which seeks to organise members and involve them in addressing issues to recruit by showing non-members that the union is active, with imaginative campaigns.

Because the work of reps is vital, but it is not enough, we cannot fight the HE Privitisation Agenda through individual case work, but through collective action alongside fellow trade unions & students I think it’s possible to push this agenda back.

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