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Open Letter on Outsourcing

from the Anti-Cuts Space.

Dear Malcolm Grant,

On April 14, you issued in your weekly newsletter to staff a statement about the relationship between different kinds of UCL worker. The newsletter was about the preeminency of the ‘academic mission’ at the institution. Referring to workers in ‘Estates, or Registry, or HR, or Finance’, you earnestly declared that between these workers and ‘the academic mission’ (we assume that this means academics), there is not ‘a relationship of master and servant, but one of partnership; and therefore one that must command mutual respect, not subordination.’ Though we would prefer to say that the relationship should be one of ‘community’, not of ‘partnership’ (this is an unfortunate lapse into business jargon), we think these are fine sentiments, and an accurate depiction of how life at UCL ought to be.

Unfortunately they are a complete falsification of how life at UCL is. Currently, and in total contradiction with your public posturing, you and your colleagues in senior management are planning to outsource 94 members of staff from cleaning, portering, security and catering, and to make redundant another sixteen. On May 4, in two weeks time, the consultation period for this decision will be over. Since there seems to have been very little public discussion around the issue, we write this letter in order to make its significance a little clearer. In short, we think that your treatment of non-academic workers in UCL is less ‘respectful’ than it is abominable; and, furthermore, that it is indicative of a completely pernicioustendency in the mistreatment of non-academic staff in UK universities at large.

You and your colleagues believe (or in any case you say that you believe) that the decision to outsource will allow you to better administer your ‘core’ services, namely research and teaching; because of it, senior management will no longer be burdened with the supervision of ‘peripheral’ services such as those provided by the staff you have targeted. This will increase the ‘efficiency’ of the college’s operations.

Thus your justification. However, since you seem resolutely immune from the knowledge of what outsourcing means for the staff involved, those please allow us the opportunity to apprise you of those consequences. The lesson might be instructive.

Outsourcing staff to the private sector means transferring in-house contracts to private contractors. Unlike noble public institutions like UCL, which are at least nominally exempted from the need to accumulate capital, private sector contractors must turn a profit if they are to remain competitive. Historically, they have done this by pushing down the wages of their workers. The UCL staff transferred to contracts with private contractors are ‘protected’ from attacks on their pay and their conditions (by TUPE regulations), but this merely incentivises the private contractors to seek technical grounds to dismiss them. Once this has been done, new workers can be employed on worse conditions, with fewer benefits, to be exploited at a higher rate. Of course to you this makes no difference, because by transferring responsibility to a private contractor, you can claim that this is out of your hands. It isn’t.

Workers moved to private sector contracts are moved one step closer to redundancy. But this isn’t all. While they wait to be nudged into unemployment, they can expect to be withdrawn from the UCL pension scheme; they can expect constant illegitimate tampering with their hours; they can expect discontinuity of workplace; they can expect the derecognition of their union, and subsequent debarral from union representation; they can expect dislocation from and discoordination with their colleagues who remain employed by UCL. These are the inevitable consequences of outsourcing; it has happened time and time again; and if you proceed with your plan you are directly and incontrovertibly responsible for all of them.

As you and your staff in human resources orchestrate all this, in typically cheerful disregard for the damage you inflict on the poorest workers in the institution (and more on this at the moment), UCL runs a surplus of £29 million pounds per annum on a turnover of £762 million. Despite the fact that this is the second largest operating surplus in the field of UK Higher Education, and despite the fact that you committed last year to provide for all staff the London Living Wage, you apparently will not extend to your workers the very rudimentary stability that secure, in-house contracts, decent pension provision and union representation afford. And as if this weren’t grotesque enough (it is grotesque enough), you write in your weekly staff newsletter that UCL is a ‘partnership’ in which all staff, no matter what their function, are deserving of ‘mutual respect’. This is so odious as to be beneath contempt. Academic staff know that community with support workers cannot be achieved if those workers are (as in the private sector they almost always are) employed on short term contracts, overstretched, overworked and shunted from workplace to workplace. You have absolutely no right to vapid paternal attitudinising about ‘mutual respect’ when you treat the poorest staff in the College so viciously.

Let’s say something about those staff with whom you believe yourself to be in ‘partnership’. These are a group of people who, like so many of the poorest working people in London, are mainly non-white; they exhibit a roughly even gender split. In this respect they strike a contrast with you and the Vice-Provosts, all of whom are white men. Already the staff targeted for outsourcing earn very considerably less than academic staff, and only a fraction of what you and other senior managers at UCL earn, in handsome return for your virtuoso displays of moral vacuity and managerial hubris. But, no matter, ‘efficiency’ demands that you abandon those targeted staff to the private sector, so that, once removed from your narrow field of vision, they can be abused even more authoritatively by companies whose profitability is a direct consequence of their expertise in abuse, for the greater benefit and efficiency of the UCL community. This is the ‘partnership’ of the employer’s boot and the employee’s chest.

To summarise: outsourcing at UCL is financially needless, extraordinarily damaging for the staff affected, and related to the UCL community only in the sense that it’s likely to annihilate it. It is carried out in line with a managerial philosophy that is both cruel and stupid; and it is publicly justified by nothing but chicanery churned out in the propaganda reports that you style ‘weekly newsletters’. In opposition to this process, UCL students and staff will conduct the consultation with the UCL community that your official ‘consultation’ has so manifestly failed to provide. You can anticipate the disgust of that community; certainly you fully deserve it.

In a period where a government elite, mouthing their own dismal platitudes about ‘community’, enthusiastically trample their way towards economic recovery, it’s difficult not to respond to news of the outsourcing with a sense of deja vu. The fight to resist the wholesale and complacent abuse of the poorest workers in UCL is part of the fight against the abuse of precarious (academic and support) workers in universities across the country, in a period when universities are bent ever further out of shape according to the ‘needs’ of the market, under the direction of managers whose wages are proportionate only to their contempt for the people who work in the institutions they destroy.

Yours Sincerely,

Anti-Cuts Space London


About bloomsburyfightback

Bloomsbury Fightback


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