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.