The privatisation of education: what is York getting INTO?

[More to follow, but here’s an uncensored version of an article I wrote for York Vision]

You’ll be hard pressed to find much about it online. Or in any emails from the university. Or any consultation with lecturers and students. York’s proposed ‘joint venture’ with INTO University Partnerships – a for-profit company which focuses on recruiting and teaching international students – has largely gone under the radar – in all likelihood, deliberately.

I came across the plans not through the university or YUSU, but through a UCU lecturer’s union briefing chucked on a few tables in Vanbrugh.

The plans are to half-privatise the recruitment and English language-teaching of international students by 2015, to an INTO-run building on Hes East near Goodricke. It appears they’ve already started the outsourcing process, with closed-door talks apparently being underway for half a year. According to my source, the UCU only found out through a ‘by-the-way’ comment during an unrelated VC presentation late last year.

Although the full plans aren’t completely clear yet – due to a notable lack of information and transparency – it looks likely that the uni will emulate other universities that have bunked up with INTO in the past. Almost all of which seem to have ended in disaster.

Let’s look at the partnerships at UEA, Exeter and Newcastle universities. According to Freedom of Information Requests, in the best case scenarios, four or five in every ten international students ‘recruited’ failed to progress onto one of the university’s courses. That opens up the risk of huge financial losses for the university.

The joint venture at Queen’s Belfast lost over £1.5 million in 2009/10, and was still losing £630k two years down the line. At Manchester College, the whole venture was called off in 2009 following £1.4m losses.

It was a similar story for City University – £2.5m losses in 2009/10. That’s nearly 300 students’ £9k fees down the pan.

INTO promised profits but actually wreaked financial chaos. Does the university really want to take such an enormous gamble with students’ money?

Where profits are sought and achieved however, the means are risky. In a bid to fill international student numbers paying sky-high fees at Exeter, the quality of those recruited was said – by management – to be ‘lower than those recruited by the university’. What can the university do about it? Locked into a long-term joint venture, not a lot. Moreover, the university – not INTO – sponsor students’ visas, meaning if INTO messes up, it’s the university that gets hit.

Moreover, new workers’ pay and conditions are likely to be affected. With no union recognition or public service ethos, INTO could put non-transferred staff on zero-hours contracts, lay off workers, and strip back hard-fought conditions. Even the company’s chair said ‘rates of pay are probably worse’. Their contracts say you can be sacked for actions which are ‘likely to prejudice the interests of the Company whether or not such conduct occurs in the course of your employment’. What could that mean? Speaking out against malpractice and mistreatment? Pushing for better working standards? It’s vague enough to be very dangerous indeed. The situation looks frightening for our Centre for English Language Teaching and its extremely (and rightfully) worried staff.

Finally, a company part-owned by a private equity firm is likely to want to expand its involvement with the university in the future. Will we even know the extent of its involvement? After all, it will be allowed to trade under ‘University of York’ branding.

Students and staff should – like 96% at Queen’s University, 94% at Goldsmiths and 90% at Essex – reject this whole dodgy scheme and keep services in-house. Many universities have indeed done so. Now that the lid is blown on the bid, York should follow suit.

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