Skip to the main content

Edwin Clifford-Coupe's picture

Earlier this month, students and staff at Sussex University went into occupation. The management at Sussex are planning to outsource 235 jobs, in total 10% of the workforce. In other words, they want to privatise various services, including cleaning, catering and security: where these services are now operated by the university, and any profit is returned to the university, the management want to turn them over to private companies which will divert profits to investors and share-holders. A list of the affected jobs can be found here. The occupiers have written a compelling statement entitled ‘Against Privatisation’, which makes important reading.

At UCL, privatising services was one of Malcolm Grant’s first big projects after becoming provost. The cleaners, catering staff and security staff were outsourced to various private companies that seek to squeeze a profit out of our university. Inevitably, they do this by cutting costs, which means attacking workers’ wages and terms and conditions. Those outsourced employees became a second-tier workforce, their wages held at the minimum wage rate over the years and their terms and conditions degraded to the statutory minimum. It has taken seven years of Living Wage campaigning to force UCL to begin paying the London Living Wage, which will finally start in August 2013. Outsourcing introduces an extra layer of managers and a further (private) profit motive, raising the cost of services to the university. The university loses out, the workers lose out, and students lose out as money is wasted and quality is degraded.

Why then do universities privatise? There are several probable reasons. A clique of neo-liberal managers now controls most of British universities. Their interests lie with private profit: see for example Malcolm Grant’s next career move as Chair of the NHS Commissioning Board, a body set up as part of this government’s agenda to begin piecing off the NHS to private companies, or UCL Estates’ plans to cram the university with more privately run coffeeshops even though we’re already pushed for space in Bloomsbury. Even starker is UCL’s current plan to build a new campus on the Carpenters Estate in the Borough of Newham, the council with the longest housing waiting list in London; every day it seems more and more like a private corporation than a public university. Furthermore, as employers, management are keen to see privatisation of workforces, as it weakens organised labour in trade unions. Moreover, privatisation is the logical conclusion of this and the previous government’s Higher Education policies. The tripling of tuition fees and the opening up to ‘private providers’ are clear attempts to turn education into a commodity marketable to consumers, and the university into a supermarket for degrees that are increasingly worthless in the job market and place graduates in overwhelming lifelong debt.

At Sussex and UCL, students, academic staff and affected workers have almost no say in the ongoing privatisations. Unelected management holds the power. Our only choice is to fight back, and begin to reclaim our universities bit by bit. The Sussex occupation is a key point in that struggle, and we stand in solidarity with you all.