Stars align to protest Sussex outsourcing

But registrar insists management is on the right track

February 28, 2013

Occupational hazards: registrar says centre staff do not welcome protest

The University of Sussex is to push ahead with plans to outsource 235 catering and estates staff despite growing protests that have attracted nationwide attention.

Registrar John Duffy, who is responsible for the university’s professional services, said he recognised that the issue was “contentious”, but maintained that by and large staff and student relations at the university remained good.

“People have strong opinions at Sussex and express them very freely and openly, and managing change…is often very difficult,” he told Times Higher Education.

Mr Duffy spoke as the student occupation of the top floor of the university’s Bramber House conference centre - billed as “a last recourse…in order to ensure that student and staff voices are heard” - approached its fourth week.

A raft of celebrities, politicians, academics and campaigners have got behind the campaign, including former Labour Cabinet minister and Sussex graduate Peter Hain, public intellectual Sir Jonathan Miller and director Ken Loach.

Occupiers claim to have gained more than 1,000 signatories to a petition calling for the outsourcing process to be halted.

A spokesman for the protesters said that staff affected were joining in with the demonstrations and that increasing numbers of academics were backing the campaign, as evidenced by yellow squares of support appearing in office windows. But Mr Duffy insisted that although the protests had received support, the occupation itself was not welcomed by staff working in the building - something the occupiers contest.

Students who had stood on an occupation platform at last week’s students’ union election were beaten, the registrar added.

“Not to underplay the strength of feeling by any means, but just…because people contact the media doesn’t mean they speak for everybody on the campus,” he said.

Management at Sussex has faced criticism from staff and unions over its level of engagement since it announced plans last May to outsource a range of services.

Earlier this month, Malcolm Wing, former national secretary at Unison, sent a letter to Michael Farthing, Sussex’s vice-chancellor, in which he called the outsourcing process in his experience “the worst in terms of engagement with staff and their trade unions, and the most secretive”.

A senior member of the University and College Union’s Sussex branch added that he felt that the management’s behaviour - which included asking a fellow union representative to remove a “1 of 235” badge from his lapel and a similar logo from his email signature - was “at odds with claims that it is open to staff and faculty opinions”.

Mr Duffy said that Sussex’s management recognised the challenges of a necessarily lengthy outsourcing process and was working with the unions over issues such as the transfer of staff pensions. But overall he believed the changes had been introduced “in a reasonable way”.

The university is currently in a period of “competitive dialogue” with potential firms for the outsourcing contracts. It aims to pick its partners this spring.

The plans - which Mr Duffy argued were no different from outsourcing at similar institutions - were about delivering “standards of excellence” across the university while supporting planned growth in student numbers, not about saving money, he said.

Mr Duffy added that he intended to meet this week with the occupiers, who say they have no plans to leave.

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