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Students Decide - tell us what you think the Students' Union should do differently

Open letter to the Vice-Chancellor

23rd May 2012 12:00 pm

Following the University's announcement that they plan to outsource many campus services, the Students' Union have written an open letter to the University's Vice-Chancellor, Michael Farthing.

A Facebook group has been set up to discuss opposition to the proposed changes.

You can click to view a larger version of the letter or read a full transcript below.

Update 23rd May: The University have now responded to our letter sent on the 10th May. You can download their response [pdf] or read a full transcript below.

>> View all the information relating to this campaign

LetterLetter page 2

Our letter - 10th May

Dear Professor Farthing,

Following the announcement that the University is proposing to outsource its Facilities Management and Catering provisions to private providers by August 2013, we are concerned that these proposals would have a negative impact on students. We have outlined these concerns below and would appreciate responses on them:

Welfare;

We are worried that the proposed changes could have negative welfare implications for students, particularly with regards to Portering and Security Services, and Residential Services. Concerns around student safety on campus has been an area of great concern for students this year. In order to have confidence in security services, students need to know that their concerns are dealt with quickly and sensitively by a member of staff who they are familiar with and who in turn is familiar with the campus and its students. In order for porters to be effective in their roles supporting students in the residences and academic buildings, it is important that they have a longstanding knowledge of the University and can build up a strong rapport with students over their time here. We are concerned that a private provider may attempt to cut costs by reducing security and portering staffing levels, and may attempt to continually move staff around meaning they may lack the knowledge and expertise of those currently filling these roles. How can the University ensure that this would not be the case?

Accountability;

The Students’ Union regularly lobbies and engages with departments affected by this proposal to achieve positive changes on behalf of the student body, and we are concerned that these opportunities would be dramatically reduced if these services were to be managed by external providers. For example, earlier this year we managed to establish clear communication channels between the University, the Security Services and the Union in order to improve student safety on campus. We agreed on a number of measures that will have a direct impact on the running of the security services and the staff training the University provides. Can we be sure that if a similar situation arises under the proposal a third party would be equally responsive to the Union and students’ needs?

Student employment;

The University currently provides many work opportunities for students with part time and flexible hours that work with students’ study commitments. Most of these opportunities come under the areas that are being proposed for outsourcing. We are concerned that less opportunities would be available for students and that the flexibility and wages of these opportunities would be reduced. Under these proposals will the University include clauses on student employment and wages?

Affordability;

We are concerned that prices of some of the services being outsourced may rise without due consideration to their affordability for students. This applies to services such as the Launderette and Catering. We are also concerned that the quality of these services might drop, and that the catering providers may not be willing to meet the variety of dietary needs required by our students if doing so is not financially beneficial. How will the University ensure that, under these proposals, this will not be the case?

Ethics and sustainability;

We have concerns that external providers, should they be brought in, may not be as responsive to the ethics and sustainability-related concerns of students. The Students’ Union currently engages with the University on a wide range of ethics and sustainability-related issues raised by students. We are concerned that progress made in this area may be reversed, or further development impeded. For example, the University has recently introduced biodegradable packaging for its catering. It is possible that an external company may choose to scrap this measure if it does not prove cost effective. How can the University ensure that these issues would not be sidelined by these providers?

Wider impacts;

Finally, we are concerned about the impact this would have on our distinctive and tight-knit campus community that creates a unique learning environment for students. We are concerned that this would lead to the development of a two-tier staff wage structure, whereby staff in these services will be paid lower salaries and receive less favourable terms and conditions than those in other areas, which will lower staff morale and impact on the staff/student relationship. How will the University ensure that staff members wages and employment conditions are maintained so that this does not become the case?

Furthermore, the proposed move is hinged on making these services ‘customer focused’, which would imply that services will become ‘demand-led’, rather than responding to the complex needs of a diverse student body. We feel there is a fundamental difference between being ‘customer-focused’ and ‘student-focused’, and we want to ensure that students can have an active say in their university life, rather than being treated like passive consumers. We are concerned that outsourcing would achieve the latter, how will the University ensure that this would not be the case?

We look forward to hearing your response, 

Kind regards,

The University of Sussex Students’ Union

The University's response - 23rd May

23 May 2012

Dear David

Thank you for your (undated) letter to the Vice-Chancellor.

1. Our plans to work with specialist external partners to manage our facilities and catering services are designed to support growth at the University and to ensure that we can provide high-quality services to our students and the campus community as we grow.

2. We have said that we will be seeking “partners”, since this is how we see the relationship working. We are looking to identify external specialist partners whose core skills and experience are precisely in these areas of work – in running and managing facilities and in running and providing catering services.

3. Like many other universities, and indeed the Students’ Union itself, we already successfully work in partnership with other organisations in a number of areas of University activity.

4. For example, we already work with companies that provide our grounds-maintenance services, cleaning and laundry services, waste management, internal audit, legal services, senior staff recruitment, occupational health, large-scale printing and design services. Most recently, we have seen the Co-op successfully take on the running of the supermarket and Post Office on campus, and the University is currently finalising an agreement with the Co-op to provide our crèche and nursery childcare services.

5. Students and staff will in their day-to-day lives also be receiving services from their local councils, schools, hospitals and so on, that are provided by specialist external organisations working in partnership with those bodies. The Students’ Union itself runs a company to deliver services to students, and is working successfully with the Co-op as the external provider of the supermarket and post office.

6. This is a common and successful model for providing services, allowing the University to focus on its primary role as an academic institution.

7. In relation to the specific points you raise:

Welfare

8. There is a range of people and organisations involved in ensuring that we have a safe and welcoming campus. We of course recognise the role that our security and portering teams play on campus, as one part of that.

9. In seeking an external partner for these specific services, as for all aspects of managing our facilities, we will define clearly what we are looking for in the service, the standards that we are seeking, and the accountability for performance.

10. We have to remember that all current staff will transfer to the new providers, so our current portering and security staff will continue to work at the campus after the transition to new providers. As is the case now, any new staff coming in will need to develop their knowledge and understanding of the campus and staff development and training will be important for high-quality external providers of services.

Accountability

11. One of the benefits of a defined contract is that it sets out clearly how we expect services to operate and the outcomes we expect from the service. The contract will define the expectations that we have for engagement of the kind you identify. Partners will be be responsive to the needs of the University as a whole, and engagement will be part of this process.

12. We will define a contract management function – i.e. a small, professional staff team within the University to run and oversee the contracts and services provided.

Student employment

13. We welcome the employment opportunities which these services provide to Sussex students. I should repeat that this plan is about supporting the growth and development of the University, as more students in future benefit from the high-quality education which Sussex provides. I would therefore not see any diminution in opportunities for student employment. Indeed, we have seen growing employment opportunities for students in recent years – for example with the opening of the Co-op supermarket as an external specialist provider on campus. We have also seen more jobs for students provided at the new Amex stadium –in the private sector - to the south of campus. All partners will work within the relevant legal frameworks on employment of students.

Affordability

14. With 12,000 and more students on campus and 2,200 staff, the incentive for partners will be to provide a range of catering services which meet the needs of the wide range of staff and students on campus. This is in practice no different from the current position for catering, which we currently seek to run in such a way it generates a surplus. We do not subsidise the provision of food and drink for students or staff, so the change of provider will not remove any existing subsidy on prices.

15. We have already made significant investment in improving our catering services and our facilities – in food preparation as well as the café and restaurants themselves. We can expect this further development to make to best use of that. In relation to particular dietary needs, we will make sure that those services meet the different dietary needs of the campus community.

Ethics and sustainability

16. The University has clear and explicit goals eg for carbon reduction, waste management, sustainable purchasing and so on. We expect to see these appropriately reflected within the services for which we contract. We can also expect suppliers themselves to be investing in sustainable operations - for example to make best use of energy efficient technology.

Wider impacts

17. In relation to your concerns about a “two tier” workforce, we do not see this in the terms you set out, since there is not a “single tier” currently. We have a multiplicity of people living and working on campus. As well as university staff, there are a number of different academic organisations, external providers of services (eg with staff working as cleaners or undertaking grounds maintenance), shops run by the Students’ Union, banks, companies in the Innovation Centre and so on. All of these people make up the wider University community and they will continue to do so in the future.

18. In relation to what you call “demand-led” services, the “demand” relates to what Sussex students and people working on campus need from these services. As you say, that demand encapsulates complex needs. External partners will have a wider experience and understanding across a large scale of activity within their particular area of operation, so that we can expect them to meet complex needs effectively.

Next steps

19. We will continue to discuss these matters with the trades unions and will happily discuss with the Students’ Union how the process operates as we take these matters forward.

Kind regards


John L Duffy
Registrar & Secretary