Six pioneer shared services for savings

Unions warn that complex contracts with private firms will lead to job losses, writes John Morgan

May 12, 2011

Credit: Report Digital
Centralised activity: combining administrative and IT functions across institutions is expected to cut costs

The University of Warwick is among six universities set to share some administrative services following repeated government calls for the sector to implement such schemes.

However, unions responded to the move with a warning that a trend towards shared services would give private firms influence over the sector, create complex contracts that fail to deliver the expected savings and lead to job losses.

Warwick said it is in advanced talks with five unnamed universities - yet to publicly announce their involvement - about sharing "a number of university administrative services and IT infrastructures". It aims to reinvest savings in teaching and research.

In the future, the group "will be expanded further to cover shared systems with other interested UK universities", a Warwick spokesman said.

The project is expected to be launched this summer by bringing together student record systems and associated registry services. The universities will work with Tribal, a provider of outsourcing services.

Declaring that the university was "not expecting any significant job losses" from the scheme, Warwick's spokesman added that savings might lead to "employing more people to deliver the student experience".

Jon Baldwin, Warwick's registrar, said: "We aim to bring together a forward-thinking group of universities who want to continue to be exemplars of best practice in university administration and also want to find ways to open up new resources to invest in the student experience and research capacity.

"We believe that the best way of achieving both those objectives is through shared services where we can learn from and support each other rather than simply individually outsourcing our needs."

David Willetts, the universities and science minister, has called for "back-office" services to be pooled because "too many universities try to do too much in-house".

But Denise Bertuchi, assistant national education officer for Unison, said shared services were "not a panacea for the funding crisis in higher education. In fact, they could add to it."

She said the union's experience in the public sector had shown that shared services created complex contracts with the private sector and hindered quality control.

To "anticipate major savings by going down the shared services route is wildly over-optimistic", Ms Bertuchi argued.

"Universities like their autonomy; they like their control," she added. "If you are going to start sharing services, you are going to get these big private organisations that will have more influence over the sector." She said the arrangements "lead to job losses".

Mike Robinson, national education officer for Unite, said shared services were a form of "creeping privatisation", with staff not guaranteed to be working for the core employer.

He added that the arrangements led to public organisations losing control of strategy and costs.

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