[TALK]: Lucien van der Walt, 2002, “The Outsourcing of Support Services in Higher Education,” SWOP ‘Brown Bag’ seminar

Lucien van der Walt, 2002, “The Outsourcing of Support Services in Higher Education,” SWOP “Brown Bag” seminar, University of Witwatersrand, 9 May, SH2187.

The debates over university restructuring – of “transformation” – have been complex, and very heated. But in some ways, though, these debates have generated far more heat than light.

Issues such as the social responsibilities of the universities and curriculum reform have loomed large on the agenda. Academics, experts, consultants, government officials have all had a great deal to say about the need to make the universities responsible to “the country” and to “the community.”

They have disagreed in their views about what the “country” needs, and about which “community” the universities should serve.

Our country is ill in many ways. It is not a fair social system. It is a country with great social divisions, and a high level of poverty. It is a country that, moreover, is being suddenly, I would say, rashly, opened up to the forces of global markets. The different organs of this sick patient, the financial heart, the labour muscles, and, I would say, the soul of the patient are suffering.

The patient is ill. And the windows of the sickroom have been opened to the cold winds of neo-liberalism. Sadly, though, our doctors do not exactly agree on what ails this patient, and what medicines to prescribe for the different problems.

When talking about the universities, the government-funded universities, the doctors have decided on harsh medicine, a shock treatment.

The pill prescribed to the universities is a bitter one: government has cut funding to the universities. This has been a long-term trend, and it is one which first emerged in the 1980s under the late apartheid government.

Government subsidies to the universities have been falling for the last fifteen years or so, and today, few universities receive more than 65 percent of their income from government.

The less well-resourced universities, the HBUs, have in general had lower subsidy cuts than the HWUs, but they have been far more affected, because they have always been more poorly resourced. Their staffs are generally less qualified; their research records are poor; and their students are increasingly unable to pay their tuition fees. Many have been attracted to the HWUs: the remainder tend to be poorer, and less prepared.

The HWUs have actually tended to suffer higher subsidy cuts than HBUs, but have been able to swallow this pill more easily. These universities are prestigious; they can generate income through research; overall, their students are better able to pay their fees; and they have a better infrastructure than the HBUs. They may not like the pill, but they have been able to keep it down by placing greater stress on raising money through research, student fees, private investment and expanding courses and student numbers.

What has happened over the last five to seven years, then, has been a deep bifurcation of the public sector university system into two main tiers: most HBUs, whose main concern is simply surviving, whose strategy is simple survivalism; and HWUs, joined by two or three of the best resourced HBUs, most notably UWC, which have transformed themselves into market universities, driven by commercial considerations, which have increasing weight as compared to academic ones.

Thus, a double system: a sector teetering on the brink of collapse, where the most grandiose plans for reform and survival tend get stuck on the drawing board, and where endemic conflict within management and between management and other university constituencies further hinders recovery; and a relatively healthy set of market universities which have, however, survived at the cost of commodifying their operations, becoming organs which serve a different purpose to that envisaged either by apartheid, or by the African nationalist movement.

Government has given these processes its blessing: on the one hand, it is perfectly prepared to surgically remove those HBUs which cannot survive its treatment, through mergers and disestablishments; on the other hand, it has explicitly and consistently supported the notion of a market university in all its key policy documents on the sector since 1996.

GEAR said it first:

With spending on education at nearly 7 percent of GDP there is a need to contain expenditure through reductions in subsidisation of the more expensive parts of the system and greater private sector involvement in higher education.

The same prescription is endorsed in subsequent documents, the 1996 report of the National Commission on Higher Education, the 1997 White Paper on Higher Education, and, most recently, the 2001 National Plan for Higher Education and recent report by the National Working Group on the Restructuring of Higher Education.

This bitter medicine was, of course, justified with government’s usual rhetorical sleight of hand: as GEAR put it, this was simple “as a way to concentrate public resources on enhancing the educational opportunities of historically disadvantaged communities” – precisely the opposite is the case, as the HBUs crumble, and as the side effects of the medicine become evident.

What has been quite absent from debates on the best treatment for the ailing higher education system, however, has been any consideration of the side effects of this neo-liberal treatment.

Debates on remedies for the ills of higher education have waxed lyrical on the need to “Africanise” (or not), the curriculum, the need to meet the challenge of globalisation, and the need to meet “community” (again, that vague word!) needs.

Nothing has been said, apart from a few short articles and news reports, about the impact of the neo-liberal medicine on blue-collar workers at the public sector universities.

It cannot be said that this medicine is being prescribed with these workers in mind; it is not deliberately aimed at them in any sense. On the contrary, they are simply absent from the diagnosis.

When I say that nothing, apart from a few short articles, have dealt with their situation, I mean exactly that; their situation is not discussed in the debates on higher education restructuring, in the government higher education policy documents, and in the journals and books on higher education transformation that have appeared in such numbers over the lest few years.

But neo-liberal medicine has been quite poisonous for the cleaners, cooks, gardeners, maintenance staff, and security guards who provide the essential support staff for the universities. Before the universities can research, can teach, can produce policy documents, a whole matrix (sic!) of support must be in place. It is this matrix though, which has been most affected by neo-liberalism.

In our study, we surveyed all 21-university campuses, speaking to one representative of management, and one representative of the largest union active amongst support service workers, to discover how university restructuring had impacted upon the support services.

We managed to get, overall, 38 interviews out of a possible 42, with 17 managers, and 20 union representatives, interviewed. We had at least one interview per campus, with the single exception of UCT, where we did not succeed in interviewing either management or the union. Fortunately, UCT is among the best-documented cases of support service restructuring in the universities, so we had other materials to draw upon in many instances.

The picture we found was dismal. Among our key findings were the following:

  • Every single public sector university in South Africa has outsourced at least one support service function. With only two exceptions, furthermore, all of these universities had embarked upon outsourcing from 1994 onwards. Inn other words, support service outsourcing at the universities has been, overwhelmingly, a characteristic of post-apartheid South Africa.
  • Despite this, debates on university transformation have not only ignored support service restructuring, but have justified the need for university transformation on the basis of apartheid era problems.
  • Data was available in 15 out of the 17 interviews with management explaining the reasons for support service outsourcing. In 12 cases, it was explained by reference to financial constraints. This rationale cut across the HWU/ HBU divide, and seems to reflect general squeeze on the public sector universities arising from declining government subsidies, and falling revenue from student enrolments. In open-ended questions, respondents spoke of the need to make their institutions “leaner,” to “do more with less,” to “reduce overheads,” and to restructure due to “financial considerations,” and a lack of “sufficient resources.”
  • However, 8 institutions also stated specifically that the support services were outsourced on the grounds that they were “non-core” functions within the university: all of these were HWUs, except one: UWC. This rationale moves beyond the merely negative need to rationalise operations, to a positive vision of a restructured and growing university, and, specifically, a market university.
  • Outsourcing was, however, uniformly negative in its impact upon support service workers. This may be judged in two ways: examining the effects of outsourcing upon workers’ working conditions and remuneration; and examining the impact of outsourcing on worker organisation and union density in the sector.
  • It is clear, first of all, that the process of outsourcing support service departments has led to enormous job losses in the sector. Typically, universities close existing support services, retrenching the workers in these departments, and then contract out these services to outside companies; ion some cases, the retrenched workers are re-employed by the new companies, in others not.
  • Now, as one might expect, the management and union representatives disagreed about how many workers had lost their jobs due to the restructuring of the support services. Management interviews give us a total figure of 4, 912 jobs lost; unionists raised the bar somewhat, reporting 5, 660 overall. Even if we accept the lower figure provided by management – and, remember, we had less interviews with managers in any event – nearly 5,000 workers overall have lost their jobs due to support service restructuring. Not all of these were directly attributable to outsourcing: in some cases, management were also engaged in rationalisation and cutbacks.
  • However, the overall picture is, I think, clear. What is also interesting is that the bulk of retrenchments took place at a small number of campuses. Management figures indicate that seven campuses retrenched 300 or more workers each, or a total of 3,823 (or 77.8 percent); union figures indicate that nine campuses retrenched more than 300 or more each, or 4,611 in total (81.1 percent).
  • And whilst these heavyweight retrenchers include many HBUs – Fort Hare clocks in at nearly 1,000 jobs lost- the well-resourced, aspirant market universities on the other side of the divide are also well represented. Pretoria retrenched 800 workers; Wits 623; and Potchefstroom at least 400. All of these were institutions that cited the need to not only cut costs but focus on core business.
  • If outsourcing saved management (and government) money, though, it did it by taking money out of workers pockets: in general, outsourcing led to workers’ earning less, and having more insecure jobs. In 8 out 11 cases for which data was available, unionists reported that outsourced workers earned lower wages than workers had done for the same job in university employ; in 9 out of 11 cases, workers received fewer benefits; in 8 out of 11 cases, jobs were more insecure; and in 8 out of 10 cases, supervision was stricter.
  • A worker interviewed by one of my colleagues in a related project put it well: “We work harder, we do more work and there is tighter control by the supervisors.” All that needs to be added to this list is “we eat less and we don’t go to the doctor if we can help it.”
  • You will note there were many gaps in this section of the data. This is partly because 3 of the universities were still busy implementing outsourcing. It was also because the unions simply did not know. Of course, this reflects badly on the unions. But it also points to another important effect of outsourcing: the deunionisation of vast swathes of higher education.
  • In 12 out of 17 cases in which outsourcing has gone far enough to allow unions to asses the situation, the union stated that it had not been properly consulted; of the remaining five cases, only two were happy; two won compromises; and one felt consulted, but was not happy with the outcome. Of those who were unhappy, one said the union was not consulted; another felt the union’s input was “ignored”; another marginalised; a fourth disregarded; a fifth “frustrated” by the process; and a sixth stated management had violating the substantive content of agreements reached.
  • Furthermore, the existing unions lost many members due to support service restructuring: interviews allow us to calculate a total loss of union membership of 5, 473, including 113 shopstewards. Now, if we bear in mind this only refers to losses in the unions interviewed, and that this figure actually exceeds total jobs losses, we get a sense of the impact on unions, and the impact on workers of support service restructuring.
  • Unions have lost loyal members, experienced shopstewards, union dues, and representation. Only two unions out of the seventeen for which data was available had secured a recognition agreement with at least one of the outsourcing companies employed by the university, and only two more were having talks with the companies about setting to try set up agreements.

At the start, I said our country is ill. As a society, we are not running very well, and yet, whilst we are bed-ridden, the cold wind or globalisation is blasting over us. In this situation, we have been prescribed, in the university sector – and, as we all know, in other sectors as well- a bitter medicine, a neo-liberal medicine, that has had mixed effects on the patient.

Yes, some parts of our social body have recovered, and have done well under this treatment, for example, our emerging market universities. But they are not doing what they used to do, and they are not doing what many of us had hoped they could do: create a democratic, and public service. Others have faltered, have collapsed, and face amputation: most of the HBUs. Of course, not all of their own constituent cells are suffering: corruption and outrageous salaries for top management keep the realties of the sick-bed away from prominent and powerful individuals and classes.

And not only has the medicine only healed some parts of the social body, whilst mutating them, it has, across the board, had poisonous side effects. Ordinary support service workers have been struck down by the very medicine of transformation.

Whoever else may be counted the beneficiaries of post-apartheid public university transformation, outsourced support service workers will not be amongst them. Instead, these workers will remain trapped in poverty, in precarious employment, in non-union jobs, a silent backdrop to debates on university restructuring that all too rarely acknowledge their very existence. It is a supreme irony that post-apartheid university transformation has brought these workers far more pain than gain.

It is not a case of no pain, no gain. For these workers, it is a case of a lot of pain, and absolutely no gain.

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