THE Scholarly Web - Outsources of discontent

Weekly transmissions from the blogosphere

March 7, 2013

The decision by the University of Sussex to push ahead with controversial plans to outsource the jobs of 235 catering and estates staff despite high-profile protests has got bloggers talking.

Ferdinand von Prondzynski, vice-chancellor of Robert Gordon University, used his University Blog to discuss these issues and reminisce about his student days.

“Back in the old days, your student body was pathetic unless it had at least occupied the administration building and the library four or five times a year,” he writes. “Unhappy with President Nixon’s re-election? Occupy the administration building! Want to end the Vietnam war? Occupy the university library!”

Clarifying that his blog is not a comment on the Sussex case specifically, Professor von Prondzynski considers whether it makes sense to try to prevent universities from outsourcing some roles.

“The idea that universities should continue to maintain all their own non- core services themselves as part of the organisation is not realistic,” he says, pointing out that doing so does not usually offer value for money. “But any plan for change requires careful handling and good communication.”

The issue of outsourcing is also making waves in the US. Bill Tierney, co- director of the Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education, addresses the issue on the 21st Century Scholar blog.

“I get to school around 6:30 a.m.,” he writes. “Usually the only other people in the building are the janitorial staff.”

He says that one of them, Blanca, usually arrives shortly after him. “We never say very much to one another, but I have often felt comfortable that there are two of us quietly going about our respective jobs. Recognize too that my arrival time is one of choice and hers is one of necessity,” he writes.

Blanca is employed by a company from which the University of Southern California subcontracts caretaking services, Dr Tierney explains. “She is married, has one child attending college, and has worked at ‘SC for almost eight years. She is thoughtful, hard-working, and sincere.”

At the beginning of February, Blanca’s employer undertook a “cost-saving and efficiency” drive, letting 26 janitorial staff go. “Those with the least amount of seniority were laid off,” he says, although Blanca’s job has survived, for now.

Dr Tierney argues that, on one level, outsourcing makes sense. “As a university, we are a non-profit and if someone else can do something for us at a lower price then we save money,” he writes.

“If I want pizza for lunch and there are two companies that deliver and one charges five bucks and the other charges 10 bucks, if all things are equal, I’ll pay five bucks.”

But the consequences of outsourcing are not economic abstractions about pizza, he adds. “I’m not opposed to paying top dollar for senior administrators. But I’m opposed to screwing people further down the economic ladder. And if we really feel there is no relationship between those of us at the top of the economic food chain and those at the bottom, then we really need to pause and consider our academic priorities.”

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