There’s a long tradition of student politics and activism at university. Sometimes it has been in response to wider political concerns such as wars or cuts. But other times it has been specifically targeted at university management in order to force a change in policy. The past twenty years have seen a step-change in the professionalisation of university leadership, with modern governance practices embedded, clearer lines of accountability drawn and more transparent systems of change deployed. At roughly the same time, students’ unions have undergone a similar process of professionalisation. This has resulted in a very different campus culture emerging over the past twenty years – where it was once an adversarial relationship, students’ unions are now seen as partners in ensuring a high-quality student experience.
Tactics have changed too – student leaders are less likely to use direct action to achieve their goals – particularly when what is desired is a change of university policy. Direct action against wars, cuts etc. sit in a slightly different tradition, usually driven by the left who by-and-large (though there are exceptions) do not control the students’ unions. Changing university policy is now usually achieved by negotiation and effective navigation of committees – sometimes a soft campaign – but less frequently occupations and direct action.
The political classes, particularly The Conservative Party have also changed their view of students’ unions. John Major famously described the three biggest threats to British society – as he saw them – to the 1992 Conservative Party Conference. They were traffic cones, benefit cheats and students’ unions. This led to the legislative agenda that saw the implementation of the Cones Hotline, Benefit Fraud Hotline and 1994 Education Act. Sadly for John Major, the ’94 Act’s provision to allow students to ‘opt-out’ of students’ union membership wasn’t the decisive blow to the unions that he had hoped. Mostly because when asked, students tended to actually want to be a member. Suffice to say; things have changed.
But a new threat is lingering that could ignite campus tensions and lead to a realignment of the relationship between student union and university management once again.
As has been well documented, the current government is keen to allow new and alternative providers into the HE market – much has been made of this over the past year. Long before the HE White Paper and even before the Browne Review, David Willets threw BPP a bone in the shape of ‘university college’ title in their trading name thanks to the companies law legislation that gives BIS control over the use of the world ‘university’. It was a quick and easy shot across the bow by a Minister that was looking to legitimise and greatly expand this part of the sector. BPP’s energetic Chief Executive, Carl Lygo has since been a very effective ambassador for the private sector and has navigated a difficult line; showing BPP ready to agree to accepted sector practices (e.g. quality assurance), but at the same time with an entirely different business model.
So successful was this chatter, that the Guardian claimed that BPP was ready to take control of up to 10 campuses in order to run their services and back office systems efficiently and in the spirit of the private sector. This story proved to be entirely false – BPP are indeed looking to expand their own provision, but currently have no interest, expertise or capability in running university’s back-office systems and services.
BPP might not be interested, but others are. Serco – the business that the Guardian called “probably the biggest company you’ve never heard of” is interested in running university services –everything short of the provision of education. And they have some experience in this area. Having run town halls for years, they are accustomed to large-scale, complicated public sector contracts. With annual revenue of nearly £4.5 billion, since Thatcher’s privitasation in the 1980’s, Serco has also run prisons, railways, school inspections and the London congestion charge. It is a monster of a company that swallows up a significant chunk of your tax contribution.
In 2010, Serco recruited the former Deputy Registrar of the University of Warwick – Ken Sloan – a man that understands campus services, life and politics to run a higher education and universities division within the company. The Guardian’s story claiming BPP ready to take control of 10 campus’ was wrong, but it is entirely plausible that there are at least 10 universities ready to give a private contractor such as Serco the rights to run everything that happens in their institutions, apart from the incomprehensible, loss-making educationy stuff.
So what does this mean and how will lead to increased tension on campus? Well, although they are often cumbersome, management in universities have had to be responsive – at least to a certain degree – to the concerns of students. In the past this was down to direct action – today it is the product of successful negotiation. But what if the same management had devolved responsibility for the delivery of accommodation, estates, resources, finance and everything else to a third party through complex contracts? This drives a very clear wedge between student and university – a wedge in the shape of a vast, monolithic, faceless bureaucracy whose motivation is profit and at best factors student concerns in to unintelligible calculations of risk, and at worst is entirely uninterested in them. This already happens on a smaller scale, particularly with accommodation, but typically, private companies do not yet run entire universities.
What then for this new partnership between students’ union and university? NUS claim that higher fees will necessitate a ‘consumer revolution’. Liam Burns, the new President also encourages direct action such as occupations. A confusing picture emerges, where ‘consumer rights’ are demanded through direct action. But the university becomes unresponsive and seemingly obfuscating of student demands – largely because they have contracted out to Serco, or other mega corporations, the right to manage everything on campus. Both student and university management are necessarily disempowered by such arrangements.
This will increase tension on campus – and with a nationally led surge in direct action, could see conflict boil over in to direct hostility and the dismantling of the current settlement that sees students’ unions and universities working together.
Ultimately, this can do no good for higher education. It is therefore imperative that universities considering outsourcing their services to Serco, or anyone else, consider how lines of accountability can be clear to them and students as clients. It will be perceived by some as selling the university off, and indeed it might make sense on the balance sheet. Just make sure it makes sense for your university culture, life, politics and community.