Higher education institutions are to be encouraged to consider whether to emulate a university that has privatised its entire academic support staff.
Falmouth University moved its library and IT staff, academic skills assistants and disability support teams to a company jointly owned by Falmouth and the University of Exeter, known as Falmouth Exeter Plus (FX Plus), more than two years ago.
The transfer was bitterly opposed by many employees, who claimed that their terms and conditions would be eroded over time at FX Plus, which is entitled to operate outside national pay structures in higher education.
The subsidiary company, which manages Falmouth’s student accommodation and had a £22 million annual turnover last year, according to its accounts, has been given £105,000 by the Higher Education Funding Council for England to persuade others to copy its example.
It is developing a “user-friendly interactive tool that helps other universities to identify the economic benefit of sharing different types of services”, FX Plus says.
The project, which was given its grant last spring, is the largest of five Hefce-funded pilots to encourage universities to share services and was cited in the Universities UK report on efficiency published last week.
However, Falmouth’s model has proved controversial: critics claimed that the transfer of staff in 2013 hit morale, with newer staff tending to join on lower salaries than existing employees. “Salaries are…spot salaries rather than [rising] on an incremental scale, so there is little sense that added experience is valued,” an FX Plus employee told Times Higher Education.
Moving academic support and student service staff to a separate company from lecturers made for a “not particularly collaborative atmosphere” with less chance to engage with academics, the employee said.
“This, in turn, leads to a less vibrant set of services, less closely embedded in the academic culture of the two institutions and with far more room for misunderstandings to occur,” they added.
However, Falmouth said that its students had rated services very highly in the National Student Survey and THE’s own Student Experience Survey since the 2013 handover.
An FX Plus spokeswoman said that by working with Falmouth, Exeter and their student unions, “we are constantly listening, learning and changing our services to reflect what students need in order to achieve their career aspirations and what the universities need in order to achieve their global ambitions”.
The business model “provides economies of scale, eliminates duplication and maximises alignment…and offers an integrated, progressive and cost-effective approach to shared service delivery, facilities management and campus enhancement”, she added.
Pay rises have tracked those awarded nationally, with a 1 per cent increase in 2013-14 followed by a 2 per cent deal in 2014-15, which rose to 4 per cent for lower-paid staff, FX Plus added.
It said that its lowest-paid staff receive just 3p less than 2014’s £7.65 an hour living wage, which it intends to officially introduce next year.