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Registrar: no student consultation

Controversy has arisen surrounding plans to outsource a number of services at the University of Sussex, after it was revealed the Registrar, John Duffy, admitted that no students were consulted before the decision was made.

In May, the university announced plans to bring “specialist external organisations” onto campus, to provide a number of services for staff and students from August 2013. These services include portering, security services, building management and maintenance, health and safety operations, and waste and recycling management.

However, a university source told the Badger that Registrar John Duffy confessed that the university had undertaken no consultation with students on the matter of outsourcing prior to announcing the plans.

Based upon point 3.8 of the Memorandum of Understanding between the university and Students’ Union, the university is obliged to “ensure that the Union is fully engaged in the development, implementation and monitoring of the University’s plans and policies”. University management have however met once with the Students’ Union and intend to “do so again in the autumn term”, although they have stated that their “first priority has been, and remains, communicating directly with and supporting the staff who work in the services involved”.

However, the Students’ Union believes that the university has failed to adequately consult with them – and the wider student body – on the issue of outsourcing. They stated that: “they put off meeting with us for many months and then only did so after numerous requests. “We are very disappointed that the University has chosen not to properly adhere to the agreement to consult with the Students’ Union on such major issues. “We believe this represents a blatant disregard for the views and opinions of Sussex students on an issue that will have serious consequences for their future university experience. “The Students’ Union is working on a consultation procedure that we believe should be followed by University management in the future and this will be taken to University Council for consideration in due course.”

Caroline Lucas, MP for Brighton Pavilion, has also expressed concern about the outsourcing proposals, and revealed that she has received no reply from Professor Michael Farthing, Sussex Vice Chancellor, after writing to him to discuss the privatisation plans, an issue that will affect a number of her constituents.

On Friday 28 September, the Students’ Union Full-Time Elected Officers met with Ms Lucas, to discuss the plans. She said: “I am concerned that the University of Sussex is proposing to outsource key services to a third party provider. “Outsourcing is frequently seen as a way for organisations to increase efficiency and cut costs. “The reality is that, all too often, staff lose out because of changes to pensions, working conditions and job-security. “I fear that students may lose out too, if pressure to return a profit leads to private sector management putting less value on long-term investment. “I have written to the University to raise my concerns about the proposal and support the petition for the University to engage with relevant parties to find an alternative solution.”

The university believes that it may be necessary for some services to be outsourced to private specialists, due to campus undergoing unprecedented change and development. The University of Sussex is looking to expand to 18,000 students by 2018, and the management believes that private companies will “best be able to develop for the needs of all students and staff”.

University of Sussex Registrar, John Duffy said: “We have already made significant improvements in our estate and catering services to students and staff, and we need now to sustain those improvements into the future. “As we grow, we need to ensure we provide support services to our students and staff as efficiently and effectively as possible – making best use both of public funding and, increasingly, of our students’ own investment.”

The changes to new service providers will affect 235 members of staff working at the university, who will transfer and be employed by these companies. The university has made it clear that the plan is “not a criticism of the current services”, and is “also not about seeking to reduce staff numbers: the University is not proposing to make redundancies.” New providers should be able to “invest in the support, training and systems that its staff use and provide good opportunities for their development.”

The University of Sussex has said that it “is also continuing to provide support to the staff who work in the services involved. “These staff were the first to be informed about the plans. “The University has held 10 confidential workshops with staff facilitated by an external organisation.”

There are plans for further communications and engagement sessions with staff, which will build on feedback from the workshops.

Duffy said: “We want to continue to help staff to understand the process we are going through. We recognise that this is a period of uncertainty. “We will have identified our new partners in the spring and a Transfer of Undertaking Protection of Employment Regulations (TUPE) consultation will then take place.”

However, the Students’ Union have expressed concern that outsourced service providers will have no incentive or obligation to offer part-time employment to students. At present, one or two of the affected jobs may be filled by part-time students, but flexible employment, for example during university holidays, is also available for students.

The Students’ Union said in a statement that: “There would be no requirement for the outsourced services to continue to offer flexible, part-time employment to students at Sussex. “The long-term likelihood that the privatised services would offer jobs to future generations of students is of concern to the Students’ Union.”

Security and portering are two of the services that the University of Sussex are looking to outsource. However, there has been concern that the standard of services may decline and therefore safety on campus may be in jeopardy.

The Union said: “The safety and welfare of all students at Sussex is a key priority for the Students’ Union. Outsourced providers would have reduced accountability to the student body and the University and the Students’ Union would have limited influence over how security services were run on a day-to-day basis.”

The university also reiterated this sentiment, stating that: “The safety of our staff and students is our absolute priority and the University will continue to have overall responsibility for the welfare of the people who work and study here. “The chosen provider will already be a specialist in this field and we will provide them with detailed specifications of our requirements.”

Dialogue between the university and Students’ Union has in the past been successful in creating positive changes for students, staff and campus life (see story on page 4 regarding tuition fee payments). Students’ Union officers sit on a number of University committees and act as the students’ voice on campus.

The Union has cited the example of lobbying to provide more vegetarian and vegan food options in University catering, but questioned whether a private catering company would be open to this sort of dialogue. He said: “The proposals would seriously reduce the opportunities the Union has to improve University services for students. Students’ Union full-time elected officers currently play an important role in changing University services in the interests of students.”

The University is currently undertaking a process called “competitive dialogue”, which will allow the best possible providers to be found to meet the needs of the University, whilst fitting in “well with the way the University works.”

Sussex students will continue to be supported on campus by a wide range of staff who are employed to provide a high quality service. “As is already the case, some of those staff will be employed by Sussex, others will be employed by other organisations, including the new external partners chosen. “But it will not diminish the services provided to students – indeed we would expect that services would continue to improve.”

 

More information on the university’s plans is available on their website: www.sussex.ac.uk/procurement/documentsandpolicies/tfmandcatering 

To find out more about the Students’ Union’s concerns with the plans visit: www.sussexstudent.com/outsourcing

Imogen Adie,
News Editor

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