Thank you for taking the time to write in with your views on the occupation of the Terrace Room in Bramber House.
We continue to keep the situation under review and I would like to use this response to explain the factors which we take into account in that process.
You have raised two issues: the exercise of restraint in managing the occupation, and discussion with the students involved.
We have of course exercised restraint in the way we have handled the occupation which is now in its eighth day. Roger Morgan, our head of security, and his team have worked very hard to ensure that the health and safety of all campus users continues to be our prime concern. We are for example allowing reasonably free access to the Terrace Room in the Conference Centre – but to ensure that those inside are safe (and with their agreement) we have a limited system of night time lockup.
To be more precise, the fire exits leading directly out of the occupied room have been blocked. Students were not informed of this; in the event of a fire they could only have found out once at the bottom of the stairwell, where they would have been trapped. PHOTOS! The opening up of access during the day only occurred on the sixth day in to the occupation, before which nobody was allowed to enter the floor of the occupation.
We do have a number of concerns in relation to health and safety, since one door has been repeatedly broken down and needs now to be properly repaired. Where concerns have been brought to our attention – eg suggestions that people were climbing on to the roof – we have investigated them.
In regard to the rest of the building – which is where we have our kitchen and main catering services, our supermarket, housing office, development and alumni office and some teaching rooms, as well as the conference centre – the managers of the services tell me that those who work in Bramber House do not welcome the third floor occupation. I am told that they see the presence of the occupiers as causing serious degradation to their working environment and a potential threat to their health and safety. Those who work in the Conference Centre continue to be denied access to their place of work.
A significant number of these colleagues – in the conference office and catering for example – are of course those who would be transferring to external providers. I understand that they do not consider that those people undertaking the occupation are acting as their representatives or on their behalf in continuing to stage this occupation. The occupiers have talked about creating a sense of community. I do not believe that your colleagues working in Bramber House would feel that this applies to them.
The campaign has had increasing amounts of support shown from members of the 235 workers affected since the beginning of the occupation, with messages of solidarity, thanks in person as well as donations sent up to the occupation. In addition, we have been made aware of continuing intimidation from management towards staff. Increasing numbers of academic staff, from across the campus and the country, are showing their support for the campaign and against management’s plans to outsource.
We are also assessing what the impact would be if the students do not end their protest. Although there would be a financial cost, the larger concerns would be the distress amongst our colleagues whose work place is directly affected in this way. In relation to the costs incurred, aside from the Students’ Union, the only other place where loss of revenue can be replaced would be from our teaching and research funds (which are the only other main sources of revenue for the university). If the latter was necessary, we would need to work carefully with Heads of Schools to ensure that all our staff and students understood the reasoning behind this.
We consider this threat to be extremely serious, and do not think the management have seriously considered its implications. Moreover, this would surely only lead to broaden the growing anger against the secretive and divisive methods used during the process.
We are also considering how we might respond if the occupation was to break into the rest of the Conference Centre in Bramber House or seek to spread to other parts of the campus – an approach which we understand has been discussed amongst the occupiers. We would be hard-pressed for example to find alternative teaching space if we also lost a major teaching space at this time and this would of course have a serious detrimental effect on the vast majority of our students who are not engaged in occupation.
In regard to discussion with the occupiers, I offered to meet with them on Tuesday of this week – and to report their views to the project board who are leading on our work with external partners and to the Council – on condition that they leave the Conference Centre. But the offer was declined.
Separately from that and prior to any action starting, the Registrar has also in the past weeks held three open meetings with students at the request of the Students’ Union and these have, for the most part, been attended by those currently involved with the occupation.
These so called ‘Q & A’ sessions, which only took place following the demand of students who felt kept in the dark, consisted more, as a student remarked, of the Q than the A. Moreover, they resulted in strengthening our campaign, after students witnessed the lack of answers given and disregard for student and staff views.
I also note that not all the emails we have received from students in the last days support the occupation. Amongst those opposed to it, I received the following:
“Therefore we are writing to ask you not to listen or address the action of the occupiers specifically, but rather communicate with the silent majority of students who are intrigued about the consequences of the proposed outsourcing, and do not believe occupation is the best way to have their voices heard. Many students have complained about being abused by occupiers for refusing to join them, thus showing the dirty tactics used by members of the group to gain support.”
A fair letter to staff would also publish quotes from the plethora of letters of support to the campaign, many of which have been received by management. Unfortunately, the way in which management is dealing with the occupation is similar to the way it has conducted the outsourcing, secretly and divisively.
I conclude by providing you with a contextual update. The University, as an autonomous independent charitable organisation, currently provides a wide range of its services through contracts with other partners.
Much of our cleaning, our laundry and all of our grounds maintenance are already provided by contractors. We also have a wide range of less visible services like specialist services to manage scientific waste, Library security and locksmithing provided to us by third parties. One of the major objectives of our current project is to bring consistency and higher standards to this range of provision.
As we undergo a period of substantial growth and significant change – with student numbers and staff numbers growing and further investment in campus facilities – we want to ensure we have an environment and services that will be high quality, focused on students and staff and offer good value for money. External providers in these areas of catering and facilities management who are specialists in their work can help us achieve this.
Firstly, the reasons for undergoing such an exponential growth in student numbers are still unclear. Moreover, these significant plans were not subject to debate or consultation with staff or students prior to their decision.
Secondly, the incentives for private companies to invest in the university and manage our services is not to share their ‘expertise’; their interest and line of management is dictated by the need to maximise profit, which once achieved, will not be reinvested back into the university. The prices of services are likely to rise, and staff numbers will be threatened.
Students and staff who question these plans do not understand why there has not been further consideration of in-house changes; it has now been made clear to all that consultation with unions and staff will only effectively occur once the tenders’ names will be released. A member of staff reporting back from the last Open Staff forum, presided by Michael Farthing, John Duffy and Jane Summerville, writes the following:
“Jane Summerville said that TUPE consultation will begin once providers have been identified. This made it very clear that the management don’t think they have to consult on the decision to outsource – that consultation is over the terms of the process, specifically on TUPE. This won’t be a surprise to some, but it finally clicked for me. They just don’t see that they need to consult at this stage.
It became clear that the decision to outsource had not been made on the basis of any evidenced-base study which would have shown that universities had benefited from outsourcing. First they decided to do this, then they started a highly confidential process to attract bidders, then they will decide on a bidder, and then they will consult.”
This is a common approach adopted by many other universities – with at least 25 other universities using external catering for example. Our Students’ Union themselves have brought in an external company to provide the catering in Falmer Bar and East Slope. They are also a regular employer of external security staff for their events.
The fact that some areas of the university employ external partners is not in itself a valid argument for the outsourcing of 235 members of staff, covering an extremely wide set of tasks, many directly linked to the daily functioning of teaching. If that was the case, why not privatise the library or the professional and administrative services of the schools? Outsourcing must be justified qualitatively, not quantitatively.
And the suggestion that services will suffer is not borne out by current experience – our very successful supermarket, our crèche and nursery, our health centre and pharmacy are all run by external organisations who employ the staff and provide the services.
Using the example of the crèche is highly problematic, if not insulting. The crèche was saved in extremis by a difficult campaign led by parents and staff, who have had to accept the compromise of outsourcing as the only way to maintain the service. For example, publicising this letter sparked this response: “Speaking as a parent I can assure you that the creche/nursery has not benefitted from privatisation. There are many problems there.”
The process for identifying suitable providers is itself a long and detailed one which is governed by a prescribed legal framework. It involves close working with potential contractors to ensure that the services are properly specified and that there are proper mechanisms for measuring and assessing delivery to a degree which we do not have in place at the moment.
Most importantly, we are working with the staff who are affected and their representatives in order to ensure that the transition to a new employer managed in a sympathetic and appropriate way. We have had many meetings with individuals and with groups. We also have had several meetings with all the campus trades unions together specifically to talk about this project and these are on-going,
Unfortunately, this is not the view shared by the unions or by many staff. The number of Freedom of Information Requests led by Unison and the demands by UCU to freeze the process and to engage in actual consultation are clear evidence that they do not share this view.
One significant output from these meetings has been a jointly agreed approach to making available to affected staff the opportunity to explore the possibility of early retirement or voluntary severance as a potential alternative to transfer to the chosen partners. We also have a further meeting arranged later this month with the trade unions to consider the issue of pensions where we will continue to work towards a positive position which addresses the concerns of staff. All of these matters proceed in an orderly and confidential way.
Again, this indicates that the staff numbers in these services are already being cut down, so as to make the services more attractive to bidders. Will these posts be replaced before the new providers take over? Will management guarantee that the new providers will replace them?
I am copying this email for their information to Heads of Schools, Heads of Professional Services, members of Senate, staff members of Council, the campus unions and the President of the Students’ Union, and publishing this – as we do all such public information – on the webpages relating to the external partners:
With kind regards,
University of Sussex
Brighton BN1 9RH, UK