Troubling FX as Falmouth forces staff to go private

Unions protest over transfer of academic support services to external firm. Jack Grove reports

January 3, 2013

Cornwall’s first university has been accused of attacking staff pay and conditions by transferring its academic support services to a private company.

About 130 employees at Falmouth University, which was granted full university status last month, are set to be moved to a company jointly owned by Falmouth and the University of Exeter known as Falmouth Exeter Plus (FX Plus).

The company, which was set up in 2004, currently employs 235 people at the two universities, mainly in catering, estate maintenance and campus services.

However, those whose contracts are now being transferred include library and IT services staff, academic skills assistants and disability support teams. It is believed to be the first time a UK university has moved its entire academic support service to an external company.

A comparable plan by London Metropolitan University was shelved in October, and in December it emerged that the University of Warwick had abandoned its plans to pool IT and administration staff with five other unnamed universities via an outsourcing company.

Such university-owned subsidiaries are attractive to institutions because they are entitled to operate outside national pay structures in higher education.

These subsidiaries also benefit from the government’s new VAT exemption on services shared between bodies already exempt from the tax, such as universities.

In a joint letter, the University and College Union and GMB claim that new recruits to FX Plus will have between seven and 10 fewer days of annual leave than employees transferred to the company.

The letter also says FX Plus staff will be removed from the national pay framework for higher education, with salaries pegged against much lower pay levels in Cornwall.

“While this may not technically be described as ‘outsourcing’ as FX Plus is jointly owned by Exeter and Falmouth, in reality, the effect is no different,” the letter reads.

One member of staff at Falmouth, who did not wish to be named, said that a librarian newly recruited to FX Plus could be paid as much as £5,000 a year less than staff moving over from Falmouth.

“That is a very significant amount when you are on the lower end of the pay scale,” she said.

Another Falmouth employee said he was concerned that future “restructuring” could circumvent Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations, which maintain terms and conditions for outsourced staff, and bring existing staff on to FX Plus’ new terms and conditions over time.

Stuart Fegan, regional officer for GMB, said that students at Falmouth could suffer if lower pay led to staff leaving.

“People may feel they have to go elsewhere to maintain their professional standing and pay levels,” he said. “If we see people leaving then, it will mean a change in service levels.”

A spokesman for FX Plus, Falmouth and Exeter, which are due to approve the transfer at a meeting on 7 January, said “staff transferring would continue to enjoy their existing terms and conditions”.

“Any such transfer would be a natural transition to reflect the shared nature of academic and student support services,” he added.

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