students

Anti-Privatisation Win in York – Uni Pulls out of INTO outsourcing plans

It doesn’t happen a lot, but once in a while there’s some good news for lefties in the UK.

After a brewing underground uproar by students and staff, the University of York has decided not to go ahead with its controversial plans to outsource the recruitment and English-language teaching of international students to part-hedge fund-owned INTO University Partnerships, a multinational firm.

Despite assertions in student media that the plans wouldn’t amount to privatisation (since the university would retain a 50% stake), many saw through it. There have been rowdy Senate meetings, mass leafleting by union activists and strong cases made against the proposals in joint union/management forums.

The idea was worrying from the start. Currently in-house staff would have been transferred to the company, and once the private-sector pressure grew too intense, it was likely that that they would leave and be replaced by people on worse contracts. Even the head of INTO has admitted himself that rates of pay are worse at the organisation.

That’s not the only reason it was always a bad idea. I was contacted by a member staff from another UK university INTO works with when the plans were announced. They warned of the disaster that the INTO contract had been, saying the York plans “threaten the fabric of your university.”

INTO contracts which started at other universities with just student recruitment are now allegedly spreading into other areas of campus management. Outsourcing is a “slippery slope”, I was told. Once you lose the capacity to run services in house, it’s more difficult to take them back under university control when companies fail.

The UCU’s briefing at York noted that at Exeter University, where INTO run international student recruitment, “the university council recently expressed concern that students coming via INTO were now of a lower quality than those recruited by the university” – all to reach targets and make a profit.

That’s not all. “In January this year, UEA pulled out of a joint venture in London having lost £2.5 million over two years and written off a further £3 million that it invested late last year trying to save the project,” the document pointed out. The same thing has happened in many other campuses across the county, including Queen’s Belfast, City University, and Manchester College. In Joint Ventures, profits and losses are shared equally. So where the company messes up, students take the hit too.

“Prevent it and you will inspire others” – that was the message from the concerned member of staff at another partner university. We should be congratulate the UCU branch at York for campaigning to prevent this undemocratic and ideological scheme from going any further. They have shown that the outsourcing tide is not irreversible.

A member of staff who would be affected at York told me when the plans were going through their “faith in the integrity of our leaders on campus [was at an] all-time low.” Now, hopefully, their faith can be a little bit restored.

Universities should be run for students, not for private company profits. The message we can learn from this saga is that, when concerns become ever louder, the university has to take heed of this fact. It’s hard to say it, but hats off to them for listening. Although maybe, just maybe, they feared the anti-privatisation unrest that hit Birmingham and Sussex Universities recently could visit our little Northern city…

Young Greens hold unprecedented national ballot for NUS conference

After a national ballot of all members, the youth branch of the Green Party has voted to back University of London Union Vice President Daniel Cooper by 71% to be the next leader of the NUS, and members also decided which other senior executive candidates to support.

Clifford Fleming, Young Greens co-chair, said: “As Greens we are proud to be fully democratic. In running this vote we have sent a signal to the rest of the student movement to follow suit. We have set a democratic precedent, and will be continuing it in future.

“Young Greens have made their decision clear, and we are pleased to announce we will be supporting Daniel Cooper for President. Daniel is a principled left-wing candidate who as ULU Vice President has shown his dedication to fighting for students and university staff alike, whether through the Tres Cosas cleaner campaign or opposing to shut down of ULU by university management.

“Young Greens will be pushing for free education, decent student grants and for an end to the startling inequalities now present in the sector, as well as supporting workers taking action for fair pay and opposing outsourcing and education cuts. Young Greens have voted to back candidates who stand up for justice in Higher Education.

“This is a crucial point just days before the conference begins, and Young Greens, along with activists in the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts and other progressive organisations, hope to set the tone and make this NUS conference a turning point for the student movement.”

Members were sent candidates manifestos by email on the 2nd April and asked to vote in an online poll of who to support, with the result announced on the 6th April via Facebook.

The vote will be an indicative ballot, and will influence how Young Green delegates vote at this weekend’s NUS conference in Liverpool from the 8th to 10th April.

Young Greens voted to support:

  • Daniel Cooper for President
  • Hannah Webb for Vice President Union Development
  • Kelly Rogers for Vice President Welfare
  • Sky Yarlett for Vice President Society and Citizenship
  • Jesse Dodkins for Vice President Further Education
  • Megan Dunn for Vice President Higher Education

 

 

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.

The government think the student debt sell-off will go unnoticed. They’re wrong.

Originally published by The Economic Voice

Student Debt

Here’s a shocking thought. By 2015, higher education could be almost completely privatised. After the shift from public funding to individualised funding through (tripled) tuition fees, most thought universities were already private enough as it is.

But the government’s announcement in June that it plans to sell off the student loan book to private investors – literally the entirety of young people’s educational debt –will mark a frightening new step in the steady decline of our education system from one of universal good to the framing of it as a business purchase, a corporate opportunity rather than the common provision of knowledge to create more rounded human beings.

It’s all part of the coalition’s plan to, in the words of Danny Alexander (the Chief Secretary to the Treasury), ‘sell off £15 billion worth of public assets by 2020. £10billion of that money will come from corporate and financial assets like the student loan book, and the other £5 billion will come from land and property.’, as a New Statesman article earlier in the year pointed out.

£10bn is a hefty amount to come largely from student debt. Why would anyone want to buy it? That’s the point – they wouldn’t. In order to privatise the Student Loans Company, the government will have to offer ‘sweeteners’ to investors – namely, hiking the cap on interest payments.

The NUS claims is has won a promise from the government that this won’t happen. Celebrate! Or, perhaps not. For a start, the tuition fee debacle itself has shown that the parties of this government cannot be trusted to keep their promises – whether from guaranteeing a ‘fair deal’ for the tax-payer on the Royal Mail privatisation (disastrously undervalued – as well as intrinsically immoral, of course) to the pledge to not raise VAT. A promise from the same government that claimed it would send our economy on the path to prosperity is not worth the paper it’s written on. Whether the sweetener is direct or hidden, there will be one, and it will be young people who, as usual, are hit hardest – particularly those who cannot pay it off early like wealthier graduates could.

So the fight is on. In Parliament itself, over 30 MPs have already signed an Early Day Motion condemning the privatisation, including the Green Party MP Caroline Lucas. Outside Parliament, students and graduates are organising against this retroactive attack – retroactive because it will affect loans from 1998-2013, and an attack because it’s another hit on young people already wracked with unemployment, low-paid insecure jobs, mental health crises and a lifetime’s worth of money owed.

The 20th of November will therefore see a National Day of Action against the sell-off, organised by the Student Assembly Against Austerity with the backing of the Young Greens, the youth branch of the Green Party, and the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts. Already 14 campuses have pledged to take part, with more to follow. In what is likely to reawaken the spirit of the 2010 student protests, and following the lecturers’ strikes at the end of October, thousands will petition, leaflet, occupy, be symbolically ‘buried’ with boxes of debt, organise debt ‘obstacle courses’ and hold banner drops and mass meetings.

The government isn’t just taking on the students of Milbank – it is taking on a whole generation – graduates and college kids, together. Indeed, the only people who will benefit from this privatisation are the same class who caused the crash in 2008 – the bankers, the speculators, the casino capitalists. We all stand to lose. So the government has picked a pretty big demographic to take on. They’re hoping it will go under the radar. Increasingly, it’s becoming clear that is won’t. A previously demoralised student movement is now on the rise again. Time to get moving.

So join the Day of Action on the 20th. If there isn’t an action happening on your campus, organise something. If you’re not at university or college, go along to an event anyway – this policy is likely to affect you, your friends or your family. Don’t let the coalition push this through without scrutiny. Otherwise, there may be no going back.

The #fairpayinHE battle is about the future of education. Time for some solidarity

[A version of this article was first published by The Yorker]

York strikers rally outside management's offices

You’d think for institutions that pay their Vice Chancellors nearly £250,000 on average, over £100k more than the Prime Minister, the rest of the staff would be paid pretty handsomely as well. Universities with millions in surplus, raking in £9k-per-student fees, should be able to remunerate their staff fairly. They should. But they don’t.

At the same time as 1,633 members of Senior Management are paid more than £140k – the salary of the government’s Secretary for Higher Education – nearly 5000 struggle to get by on the Minimum Wage in HE.

This is the national trend, made clear after a Young Greens report, The Fair Pay League, revealed last week that If university heads took a pay cut to £140,000, the money raised nationally would be more than enough to pay every minimum wage worker (there’s nearly 5,000 of them in the sector) a Living Wage. At the current rate however, the lowest paid have to work on average 18.6 years to earn the annual salary of the head of their university. At York the figure is similar.

Indeed, the same report revealed that in 2012, the number of senior staff paid over £140k in our universities:

‘…gives a total of over £228 million spent annually on high wages in Higher Education. If the 113 highest paid employees are not included, the remaining 1,520 paid over £140,000 could take a reduction in pay of no more than £10,774 each (a maximum of 7.7%) in order to give the other 6,769 lowest paid staff in the Higher Education sector a raise to the Living Wage.’

So the level of inequality in Higher Education is staggering. It’s no wonder then that workers launched the first ever joint national university strike on the 31st against a measly 1% pay offer – a real-terms pay cut when inflation is taken into account.

The lecturers’ union, the UCU, was joined by thousands in the Unite and Unison trade unions in an unprecedented move of unity following strong votes in favour of action last month.

It’s about time. The 1% pay offer comes after 4 years of pay freezes and below-inflation rises, equating to a 13% cut in university workers’ incomes. This is happening while the highest paid in our universities are seeing their pay rise, while tuition fees have been hiked and while courses are closing and universities face privatisation by the back door. Even the student loan book is being sold off to private companies to make a quick buck – and make no mistake, our debt will soar as a result.

So these striking workers are fighting for education as a whole in the face of brutal attacks from central government in terms of nigh-100% cuts to humanities subjects, the butchering of other departments – and eternal attacks on pay and conditions.

If you care about the people who teach us, who clean up after us, who serve us in canteens and who keep our university going, back the campaign. If you care about what this government is doing to education, and you think sky-rocketing inequality in the education system has to stop, back the campaign. If you think everyone deserves fair pay and not an endless race to the bottom, back the campaign.

How? The National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts have put out the following call for students to, over the coming days and weeks:

  • Hold meetings, protests and rallies on your campus in support of the strikes, and against the privatisation of student debt
  • Build contacts with staff and co-ordinate action at every level: across cities, on campuses and in departments
  • Hold flash occupations – ‘shockupations’ – in solidarity with the pay dispute

To sign the call, email againstfeesandcuts@gmail.com. Get organising, folks. With Sheffield, Sussex and SOAS all going into occupation over the past few days, this is a rare radical upsurge the left can’t afford to miss.

Uni of York Greens condemn Brighton pay cuts

The situation in Brighton is becoming increasingly worrying. While the overall council pay bill is going up, CityClean workers are facing proposals to significantly cut their pay, ostensibly in an attempt by the minority Green administration to equalise pay among male and female workers. However, as Caroline Lucas MP has stated, equalising down should never have been the means for doing this, and many Greens – possibly the majority, both in Brighton and nationally – condemn the cuts to pay. A similar motion to the one posted below is expected to be put forward to Green Party conference this September – which will be held in Brighton.

The Uni of York Green Party committee just passed the statement below unanimously. Please share widely and use it as a model motion to pass in your local parties. When passed, please send it to info@brightonhovegreens.orginfo@brighton-hove.gov.uk and jason@jasonkitcat.com (and whoever else appears relevant – B&H GMB etc.):

The University of York Green Party joins Brighton Green Party members and Caroline Lucas MP in calling for Brighton and Hove Council to rethink plans to cuts refuse workers’ pay by up to £4000 per year, which could have a disastrous effect on some of the lowest-paid council staff.

While we recognise the difficult situation the minority Green administration is in, faced with huge central government cuts and a harsh Labour/Conservative opposition, cutting the pay of the low-paid is contrary to Green principles and should be avoided by any means possible.

The University of York Green Party fully supports the workers taking action against the proposed pay cuts, and we call on the Green administration to work with the trade unions in Brighton to avoid any regressive measures, and to come up with a progressive pay proposal in line with the party’s principles of social justice, building on the council’s introduction of the Living Wage.

Young people can criticise Thatcher as much as anyone

[Reposted from my piece up at The Yorker here]

It’s fair to say the outrage against those celebrating Thatcher’s death has been simultaneously immense, orchestrated, and unsurprising. Much of it centres on the fact that, as an article in last week’s i newspaper stated, ‘the majority of those celebrating…were not old enough to remember the Iron Lady’s reign’. But regardless of the ethics of grave-dancing, why should young people be excluded from having opinions on the rule of one of the most influential – and arguably devastating – politicians of the 20th century?

We live in a world moulded by Thatcherism – the individualist logic of self-interest, manifesting itself politically as a programme of privatisation, deregulation and liberalisation. The impact of Thatcher on young people today can’t be underestimated.

I’ll start with the most obvious. Trade union membership. Working people – including young people – in 1979 were organised. 13.5 million Brits were union members. Upon her exit, that had shrunk to 8.5 million after the whole-scale privatisation of utilities, and the crushing of the (largely Northern) miners and dockers. Now, just a quarter of workers are in trade unions – and just a tenth of 16-24 year olds. It’s no surprise then, that young people are now probably the most systematically exploited demographic in Britain, working zero-hours contracts to be fired on a whim. Our generation is precarious, teetering from one short-term job to the next – when we can find work.

Thatcher ushered in the era of mass unemployment. The ending of the social democratic consensus brought with it the long dole queues, which despite being by no means unknown in pre-Thatcher years, became accepted and normalised. At the peak of Labour’s so-called ‘Winter of Discontent’, unemployment was at 1.1m – a figure we could only dream of now. Under Thatcher it doubled to peak at over 3m. Who does unemployment hit the hardest? Those with least experience, in most likelihood – the young. Around a million young people are now unemployed – around the same as the total ‘Winter of Discontent’ figure. You read that right. Thanks, Thatcherism.

Of course, despite our very serious worries as uni students, they are trivial compared to some of our generation. Those not wishing – or unable – to go to university are plagued by the decimation of manufacturing which used to provide stable and reliable employment to working-class kids after school. Going from around 18% of the economy in 1979 to less than 10% today, the systematic destruction of our manufacturing base to undermine the unions has led to a crisis of youth unemployment, especially for those not expecting to go into higher education.

It’s in housing that young people are currently hurting the most, were there to be a rather macabre scale of modern miseries. The property obsession Thatcherism stimulated culminated in her deregulation of the mortgage market – a partial cause of both the unsustainable property bubble of the 2000s and the 2008 financial crash. It also led to unfulfilled aspirations. 88% of people today aged 18 to 30 still say they want to own their own home in the next 10 years. Most of these know it’s a pipe-dream. And with a massively depleted social housing stock due to the Right to Buy policy, there are no truly affordable homes to fill the gap. Millions are on waiting lists. An IPPR report in 2012 recognised the problem for this generation – ‘housing under-supply – in combination with a number of other social, economic and cultural forces – is having real and substantial effects on the lived experience and future aspirations of young people‘.

These problems are just a few of those faced today by our generation, which were in large part due to, or exacerbated by, the policies of the Thatcher governments of the 80s. Post-Thatcher governments have failed to turn away from a services and finance dominated economy which offer the wonderful polarity of McDonalds – for us – or RBS, for the new elites.

This isn’t to go into the many mental health problems caused by an all-permeating ideology of greed, consumerism and privatised space, where billboards and the media daily sell us more insecurities which can be solved – at a cost, and temporarily – by the latest fad. Young people today are raised on such insecurities, which are added to the list of material worries discussed before.

I think it’s safe to say young people have a better claim than many to criticise her. We live in a world partly of her making. We are acutely hit by increasingly precarious work (when we can get it), increasingly unattainable housing, and by the decline of communities which once offered refuge and comfort when you were in trouble. I won’t say party on, Brixton revellers. I won’t say download ‘Ding Dong the Witch is Dead’. But hold some kind of opinion. We owe that much to the first generation hit by her policies – the miners of Orgreave, the dockers of Liverpool, the pit communities surrounding York. Celebrate her death if you want – but more importantly, get organised. Because this government is carrying out policies Thatcher could only have dreamed of getting away with.