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What Sussex is gaining...

It is morally wrong to deny University of Sussex students 24/7 support from flexible, professional campus services, says John Duffy

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Source: Paul Bateman

We are proud of many things at the University of Sussex, not least of which is the friendly and tolerant atmosphere on campus. Our community mirrors what is so attractive about the wider region of Brighton and Hove and the counties of East and West Sussex in being an inclusive and thriving place to live and work.

Looking at the trouble we have had in recent weeks - with protesters (at least some of whom are our students) breaking into our main administrative building, wrecking furniture, daubing graffiti, burning documents and stealing staff possessions - some may wonder if the changes we have planned can be worth the current disharmony.

After all, some people say, these plans are not even about teaching or research, but relate to some of our non-academic services.

Naturally, I would prefer it if we had not had to deal with the violence, or had to go to the High Court to remove those occupiers who were also involved in organising the demonstration that led to these events. But I do not regret the decision we made to look for expert external partners to help us deliver our catering and facilities management services.

It is because the 235 staff working in these services do such an important job for us that this really does matter.

Our plans are in the best traditions of the university and its commitment to take a fresh look at how higher education works. They are essential if we are to continue to play our role as a leading academic institution.

Universities face a choice: to compete on the global stage or to settle for second-rate status. Our staff and students expect us to aim high, and we do. But this is going to become increasingly difficult.

Already we can see that slight changes of nuance in the government’s stance on student immigration are seized on by our international competitors, while competition for domestic students increases all the time, and this is even before the average 18-year-old has heard of a Mooc (massive open online course).

Those pressures mean we cannot afford to be in a position in which any part of our offer to staff and students does not match the best in class.

I do not criticise the staff who provide these services. I know they work hard and do their best. That is why we are determined that when they transfer to new providers they will not just have their terms and conditions protected but will also be offered a fair and reasonable deal on their pensions and remain part of the campus community.

What is needed is investment and expertise from expert providers, which is what our new partners will bring. More responsive services require dedicated technology, systems and training in the professional fields of catering and facilities management. That is simply not the sort of thing a university has to hand.

In catering, we need to offer more choice, and to be able to flexibly scale up or down the range of services we offer during the year. We need to remove a £500,000 annual deficit that drains funds from teaching and research.

In facilities management, our proposals will rationalise the current mixture of in-house and outsourced providers. We will have a single provider taking a coherent view across these services and will be equipped to engage a generation of students, and staff, which expects 24/7 support.

The protesters complain that we have announced our plans without discussion and have refused to debate their merits. This is simply not true. In fact we have been and remain engaged in discussion with the campus trade unions throughout. We continue to support staff who are transferring to new providers. And, yes, despite the disruption we saw, we continue to allow peaceful demonstrations on our campus.

What some of the protesters really mean is that we will not give in to their demands to call a halt to the whole process. And we will not. We are listening to issues raised with us and we are responding, but we are not going to retreat from the central idea that our services can be significantly improved through appointing external providers.

Almost all of our students, domestic or overseas, now pay substantial fees to study at Sussex. It would be foolish, and morally wrong, to think we could take their money, ignore the improvements we need to make in services and carry on as before.

Our work will go on and the University of Sussex will be a better place to teach and study because of it.

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Readers' comments (4)

  • Luke Martell

    As a longstanding member of academic staff at Sussex University I question that there’s a ‘friendly and tolerant atmosphere on campus’. The UCU union recently asked for a new and unusual statute on freedom of speech for all Sussex staff, precisely because some feel there hasn’t been such an atmosphere. The statute was agreed and we were promised it would be held to. But it’s been transgressed by staff being told they can’t wear badges or use email signatures that support the anti-outsourcing campaign at Sussex. Staff fear loss of their jobs if they speak out against the university management. Protest has been met with heavy policing and an injunction requiring permission to protest, rather than dialogue. It’s the anti-outsourcing campaign, and the occupation associated with it, that’s made people feel more confident about speaking openly, in the face of a campus atmosphere that’s otherwise felt the opposite of friendly and tolerant.

    John Duffy says the 235 staff to be outsourced do ‘such an important job for us’. Why, then, at a recorded meeting with students and staff from the 235, did he call their work (wrongly, in my view) ‘sub-optimal’. And if they’re of such value to the university management why do they intend to transfer these staff to external providers where under TUPE regulations they can be dismissed afterwards if an economic, technological or organisational reason is given. Or pay, conditions and pensions be diminished, as has happened at other places where such outsourcing has happened.

    John says the 235 will get a ‘fair and reasonable’ deal on pensions if outsourced. But pensions at Sussex aren’t protected by TUPE and the university management have openly said in talks they expect such pensions to be worse if staff are outsourced.

    There’s no evidence student protestors support violence. Those I’ve spoken to disavow violence and no person has been subject to attack during the anti-outsourcing campaign. Yet John links the campaign with violence.

    John says better catering can be achieved with outsourcing. There’s never been a consultation with unions, staff or students as to whether this objective could be achieved in-house. He’s said, for example, that a reason for the outsourcing is so more vegetarian options can be provided. As a vegetarian, I’m mystified as to why private for-profit providers can do this but in-house staff can’t. He says the plan is to reduce a £500k deficit, but this is disputed, including by the argument he’s made that the outsourcing isn’t a cost-saving exercise.

    Demand for 24/7 support is given as a reason for outsourcing to private for-profit providers. But John has previously said how successful the in-house library has been at providing services 24/7.

    John says peaceful demonstration is allowed on campus. But since the university management sought a court injunction protestors have to ask them for permission to hold a demo. I’m proud to say my students have continued to protest without ‘permission’ under such conditions. It’s not at all clear that peaceful demonstration is allowed.

    John says ‘we are not going to retreat from the central idea that our services can be significantly improved through appointing external providers’. This is in tension with his statement that the university management have been ‘engaged in discussion with the campus trade unions throughout’. Unions, staff and students say consultations haven’t been meaningful because the decision to outsource has not been open for discussion.

    Thank you to the protesters for opening up this question, which otherwise would have been closed down. They’ve been working in what John calls ‘the best traditions of the university’, not the plans for outsourcing that he gives this label to.

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  • "Almost all of our students, domestic or overseas, now pay substantial fees to study at Sussex. It would be foolish, and morally wrong, to think we could take their money, ignore the improvements we need to make in services and carry on as before."

    I have paid a total of 42.000 GBP in tuition fees to Sussex and may pay an additional 48.000 GBP for a DPhil. Leaving aside all the misleading assertions, I find it questionable that the University has a management that is incapable of providing services to students without resorting to external providers. I expect that to the greatest extent possible the tuition fees I pay go towards the development of the community on campus and not so that companies can take money out of the university. I find that morally wrong.

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  • "In fact we have been and remain engaged in discussion with the campus trade unions throughout."

    This isn't even a distortion of the truth. It's just a BLATANT LIE. There are documents detailing how union attempts to communicate with management have been consistently ignored. And the decision was made before and staff were consulted - in fact the contracts were advertised in the European Journal before anyone was told.

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  • Gabrielquotes

    The University's injunction bans "occupational or other protest."

    In the same way that the phrase 'black or other shoes' includes yellow shoes, this wording does indeed prohibit peaceful protest along with violent protest, and it is offensive and frankly childish for Mr Duffy to suggest otherwise.

    Further details of this debacle (from my point of view) can be found at:
    http://gabrielquotes.org.uk/2013/04/18/panorama/
    http://gabrielquotes.org.uk/2013/03/27/pesach5773/#Mar25
    http://gabrielquotes.org.uk/2013/03/21/strasbourg/

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