Simon Midgley on a flagship campus contracting scheme.
A pioneering contract with a private facilities management company has revolutionised the way a West Country college administers maintenance work, manages its estate, purchases supplies and plans new building work.
Six years ago the Church of England College of St Mark and St John in Plymouth was looking slightly down at heel. Buildings were crying out for a coat of paint, the grounds needed sprucing up and standards of general repair and maintenance work were not as high as they should have been.
Then in August 1992 the college signed a five-year contract with Charter Services to take over the management of maintenance workers, to purchase supplies, help prepare strategic plans for the future and offer general project management and consultancy advice.
Today the college has been transformed. The buildings have been painted, the grounds and quality of maintenance work improved dramatically and the college has managed to secure extra funding council cash as well as reductions from centralised purchasing arrangements.
Barry Lee, an assistant principal in charge of business and administrative affairs, says: "The college transformed practically overnight. It went from peeling external paintwork to a nice burgundy wine hue. The gounds were uplifted as well. It looked different. There was a physical manifestation of the improvement in front of everybody's eyes. Nobody could deny it, even the most ardent critics."
So what happened? The college was built on a greenfield site in 1973 after it moved to Plymouth from its former home in Chelsea. For many years the campus did not need much in the way of maintenance and the administrators concentrated on building up the college's academic reputation and culture.
By 1991, maintenance standards had slipped and the buildings were beginning to look a little shabby. Senior college managers were impressed by a presentation from Charter Services, a subsidiary of Symonds Facilities Management, which was offering to take over the management of maintenance work.
The deal was attractive. The company would employ the college's maintenance staff and provide a service for exactly the same amount of money it was costing the college.
Mr Lee says: "The college had problems with maintenance more through management neglect than the fault of the actual maintenance chaps themselves. Some of them had been with us for 16 years and were rather institutionalised in their performance.
"If you ask someone to go and clean a room for ten years and don't go and look at what they have done, how can you blame them if their cleaning is not very good? It was our fault. People like me and people before me who did not take a close interest, did not exact standards, did not motivate the men."
The college ensured that the terms and conditions of the six maintenance men - carpenters, a painter, plumber/engineer and electrician - were protected, negotiated with the TGWU, and transferred them to the employment of Charter Services in August 1992. Charter installed a site maintenance manager, a contract manager to look after the strategic issues and a purchasing manager for all buying.
Charter is paid around Pounds 130,000 a year for all salaries and recommends how to spend the Pounds 530,000 annual maintenance budget for materials, refurbishment, professional fees etc.
According to Mr Lee, since Charter assumed the contract the company has saved the college considerable amounts of money in a variety of ways. It motivated the maintenance team by organising their work properly, setting performance standards, prioritising tasks, and taking an interest in the quality of their work. Mr Lee says that the staff's productivity quadrupuled and, somewhat ironically, demand for their services leapt.
The college has also drawn heavily on the company's management expertise in getting Charter to: arrange for invitations for tender for building works, to provide detailed specifications, to negotiate with contractors, and prepare a strategic estates plan.
"If I want a computer-aided design of the college," Mr Lee says "They can provide us with very quick competitive quotes from specialists to do it."
One week, he adds, we might need a civil engineer, another a mechanical engineer or a design darughtsman or perhaps a quantity surveyor. Charter finds the experts.
The company also helps negotiate grants with the funding council. It has the professionalism and expertise to deal with the sophisticated and informed demands of the council, which has professionalised the culture in which higher education institutions work.
It produced an accommodation policy that enabled the college to capture some of the remaining Hunter funds for estate refurbishment and negotiated a Pounds 50,000 saving on a bill with South West Water following an underground leak.
Some universities can spend up to Pounds 20,000 commissioning accountants to produce an estates' strategy on their behalf. In St Mark's case, Charter produced its strategy plan as part of its general duties.
Charter has also set up a centralised purchasing system for materials and equipment such as computers, stationery and print buying which requires prospective suppliers to submit competitive tenders.
Mike Hardaway, Charter's operations manager on site, says things are going well from the company's point of view but it is less clear how good a deal it has been financially. The contracting operation is a flagship scheme for Symonds Facilities Management, which offers such contracting arrangements elsewhere, but the original idea was that Charter would serve four or five public sector institutions in the Plymouth area purchasing in bulk and sharing the benefits of a centralised pool of labour.
Unfortunately it has not managed to attract any other clients. When the contract comes up for renewal next year the company may try to negotiate a more profitable deal.
"We have got real benefits from this contract," Mr Lee says. It has changed the culture of the institution without causing too much pain and upheaval.