DURHAM University is planning to hand over its computing services to a multinational firm in a deal that is stirring deep resentment among academic staff.
They fear that academic freedom could be jeopardised when control of information technology falls to a commercial organisation that is concerned primarily with profit rather than teaching or research.
Martin Hughes, president of the local Association of University Teachers and a philosophy lecturer, said: "The core activities of a university should not be privatised. This could completely remake our industry. There is more concerned reaction against the plan than I have seen over any other issue in 15 years.
"It could well be the beginning of a major move towards privatisation in higher education with implications far beyond computer services and far beyond Durham."
The university confirmed this week that it was in advanced negotiations with Unisys to take over management and information computer services as a first phase of privatisation. A university spokesman said: "Part of the negotiations would include consideration of a possible phase two, including academic support and other computing services." He added that it was "perfectly proper" for the university to consider the possibility of change, particularly since the computer arrangements were due for renewal in 2000.
The university said that while information technology was increasingly important it was not a core activity. The Unisys proposal would transfer the risk of purchasing expensive equipment from the university to the provider.
The project has the support of the Higher Education Funding Council for England through its Pathfinder scheme, an initiative to encourage public/private sector collaborations by supporting the costs of professional advisers.
The university stressed that it would not accept a deal that threatened academic freedom.
But Mr Hughes said that staff were nevertheless concerned that the freedom to get involved in technology transfer deals with some countries may be restricted by United States federal laws.
Part of the difficulty, said Mr Hughes, was that the deal was being conducted in secret. "The full details of the Unisys bid will be known to senior management, but the wider university community will be unable to make any informed judgement about the value for money we shall get in this important transaction," he said. "The sums involved are doubtless very large."
The university declined to put a figure on the deal because of commercial confidentiality.
Sandi Golbey, chair of the AUT's computer committee, said it had been feared for some time that privatisation would creep into computer services. "It is hard to see how a university could make any real savings without reducing the services on offer," she said. There was also the difficulty of handing over the "policing" of students who abuse computer services.
Aenea Reid, an executive member of the Universities and Colleges Information Systems Association said privatisation was a dangerous trend because university computing services were responsive to the needs of academics. Unisys declined to comment.