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.
16 responses to “Fear the future campus wars”
Nicely put. Effectively the government wants to replace a system where student’s rights and needs are met via a union-style negotiation (the vast majority of SU work is ensuring the institution meets student needs) with a system that puts everything on a quasi-contractual basis.
It’s another interesting angle on the not-as-silly-as-it-sounds meme that conservative university policy moves in the opposite direction to all other social policy.
The SU is the original “Big Society” – any fresher’s fair will show you that.
You might want to check out some ‘co-opted’ student unions. I know of one that outsourced their own bar!
You state clearly that an outsourcing company could run everything except the “the incomprehensible, loss-making educationy stuff”, and this is probably true, although I too would share the reservations you articulate here.
However I think its important to consider the fact that in some cases University service managers in areas such as accommodation, catering, finance etc. already act as profit-centred business units, and in some cases are seen by students (and some staff?) as faceless bureaucracies. I agree that institutions are more responsive to student needs these days than they have been in the past – but that responsivness in my opinion tends to come mainly when dealing with the “educationy stuff”. The price of a meal in the main refectory, the cost of other non-educational services etc, I suspect receive much less consideration beyond “do they make money and they are of a basic/acceptable standard”. One has to wonder if an outsourcing organisation wouldn’t have just the same view…
You also speak of direct action from students. I am unsure of the last time I heard of a large campaign from students based around the spiralling cost of a cup of coffee and the service (or lack thereof) received. Sadly, I suspect the consumer revolution will happen – but before it hits these consumer focussed areas of campus I fear it may first begin in the wrong place – the classroom.
If the educationy stuff is incomprehensible and loss-making, you must be doing it wrong on both counts, surely?
Like Rob, I’m not convinced that Serco et al would necessarily be less responsive than in-sourced services. Even if they are less sensitive to the individual student (which is arguable) they will be more sensitive to high-level concern within the client organisation. As VC you can change your estates contractor far more easily than you can fire your estates department. So when student concern is a concern to the VC, things may well happen more quickly in an outsourced model
@Andrew, @Rob – point taken, but I think with the wholesale outsourcing which is what I’m talking about, things would be a little bit different. The dependency on the company and its ubiquitousness could make it the most powerful player in town.
Of course this could be taken even further. The campus could be run by a company like Serco and education provided by a company like Pearson. Then what’s left of the university as we understand the term?
@Mark – In that scenario, clearly nothing, and the student experience would be very different though – mainly down to the fact that the education is also something that is coming from a for-profit provider, and much less so that the “back office” (a term I particularly dislike) is handled by someone else.
As I have said, I’m not in favour of outsourcing as I believe that the contextual knowledge that is innate in HEIs could not be easily duplicated. For some universities however I can see why it is an attractive option rather than grasping the hard task of finding efficiencies and maximising revenue in existing operations. Universities are good at the education business, but I think sometimes kid themselves on how good they are at the business of business.
@Rob – your last point is a profound one. As soon as I see a university attempting to speak the language of business, I see a university that does not understand what it is actually for. Business is not our language – which is why we spend such a lot on translators.
@dkernohan I fail to see why a university cannot occupy that space though. A university can be a place for learning, for knowledge creation, for inspiration – and it should be able to do that in a business-like manner. The key is balance, and the problems occur when that does not happen. My point above would be better expressed that universities seem to struggle to achieve that balance, which leaves us wildly swinging from one end of the spectrum to the other.
you’re probably right about a lot of this, but the bit in the blog:
“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.”
The legislation puts university and university college titles into the hands of the Privy Council. The Privy Council will approve if there’s a recommendation from QAA via BIS. So BIS can’t do this on their own. I’m sure David Willetts was delighted, and would have even more delighted if they had met the criteria for university title outright (hence the consultation on fiddling about with the rules).
@Mike – Sorry but that’s not right. They didn’t change the title through the Privy Council. They changed the company’s trading name to BPP University College – a very different thing. BIS have ownership of the use of the word ‘university’ for such things, and companies legislation gives them the ultimate authority about it’s use. If I wanted to start a pub called The University of Beer, I would have to apply to BIS for the use of the word, via company law. If in doubt, it’s laid out pretty clearly in the technical consultation as a route that’s currently available for use by BIS to use if they choose to.
In another context, the same is the case with the Department for Health controlling the use of the word pharmacy or hospital etc. It is down to their discretion. This was a trading name change, not a full-blown Privy Council change to university title.
I’m glad you brought this up though as it is something that is widely misunderstood because of the obscure use of law here. Happy to point you in the direction of lawyers, HEFCE, QAA, BIS etc that will confirm this to be the case.
@rob why? universities are already the source of hundreds of start-up companies that are redefining what “business” means and how it works. Why do we need to be in a space that is already dying…
IT is one area where outsourcing is more established although not wholesale. I don’t see that any institution will plump for wholesale outsourcing of their student services, partly because the market is too immature at the moment but mainly because the student experience is key. I’ve put a bit more rationale and some lessons learned from IT in a blog posting – see http://bit.ly/qw23tL
Sorry – my mistake – but my eye was caught originally by BPP only using ‘University College’ and so I assumed that they had been caught on one of the university title criteria through the Privy Council/QAA route. In the nineties I was involved in discussions about using ‘university’ as part of a trading name, and the way that the 1992 act was being read.
The sector needs to ensure that the new procedures provide a broadly level playing field – how odd that the 1992 and 1998 acts allow the potential interpretation that if you are not an ‘educational institution’ (which are controlled) you can be a university…