A recent wave of private takeovers of university departments has raised fears about the creeping privatisation of higher education.
The University and College Union this week launched a campaign against the increasing number of partnership deals being struck between universities and a private firm to fund and run new English-language centres for international students.
Into University Partnerships Ltd, which already has arrangements to share the funding of and profits from language centres at the University of East Anglia and Exeter University, is near agreeing a similar joint venture with Newcastle University. It has at least six other institutions in its sights, including Oxford Brookes Universities.
Union activists fear for the long-term job security of staff in the language centres whose contracts are being transferred to the company. They have warned that agreements between Into and universities could lead to more privatisation in higher education.
The UCU resolved to offer "full support" to all local union branches in its campaign against deals with Into. This should include the "active and urgent" involvement of the UCU's campaigns unit and "consideration... of balloting for industrial action".
This week, Sally Hunt, UCU joint general secretary, wrote to Drummond Bone, president of Universities UK, to raise concerns about the activities of Into and similar companies, such as Kaplan and Study Group International.
In her letter, Ms Hunt claims that UEA has been advertising for staff at its new English-language centre "with lower than usual qualifications and lower levels of pay". She says: "My concern is at the possible negative impact of these ventures on the quality of education provided and the impact on the terms and conditions of staff where private provision replaces that of the institution itself."
Roger Kline, UCU's head of equality and employment rights, said universities were taking big risks by signing long-term deals with private firms to cater for the volatile international market.
Jenny Toomey, Newcastle UCU branch secretary, said local union members would meet to consider voting for industrial action in protest against the deal with Into.
A Newcastle spokesman said the agreement was a "done deal", adding that university had guaranteed protection of jobs and academic standards in the package.
Andrew Colin, chairman of Into and former head of Study Group, said he hoped to secure partnerships with at least six more institutions. The deals would be worth £300 million in total.
"There is no doubt that the interests of staff and academic standards are being protected and that these partnerships will result in value for money for students," he said. "I am staggered that anyone should be so vehemently opposed to what is a wonderful initiative for universities."
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