The anti-privatization campaign at Sussex University has been one of the catalysts for a recent resurgence in political activity on campuses across the UK. A major hurdle Sussex campaigners have had to overcome is conveying to fellow students the consequences that privatization of university services has – for all of us. Here, Alia Al Ghussain explains why fighting the privatization of campus services matters so much.
1. It signals even wider exploitation of a precarious workforce (which includes us).
The privatization of services at Sussex has created a two-tiered staff body. Catering workers who were at Sussex pre-privatisation still have sick pay, holiday pay and a pension scheme for the meantime, while newer workers employed by outsourcing giant Chartwells have no such benefits and are on zero hour contracts. This casualization of work actively decreases job security: try to use your labour as a bargaining tool and your boss may decide they have no shifts for you next week. If these jobs aren’t already filled by students, these are precisely the kinds of jobs – and conditions – students can expect to be taking on after university. Zero hours. Little pay. No benefits. It is in the interest of every students to campaign on issues like the living wage, sick pay and holiday pay. Now.
2. It demonstrates the democratic deficit in HE.
Sussex’s outsourcing plans were announced by senior management with no consultation of staff or students. At SOAS, the complaints of the outsourced cleaners (now due to go on strike) were ignored by the management team. When services are run in the interests of profit, the concerns of people become less important. The increasing privatization of university campuses is symptomatic of a democratic deficit across UK universities. Management teams – many of whom barely engage with the university on a day to day basis – make changes to the fundamental structures of universities without consultation and with impunity. Universities should be run by staff and students, for staff and students – not by managers for profit.
3. Services are only the beginning.
The proposed privatization of the student loan book is proof of this. The privatisation of services on campuses is part of a broader move to make universities places of profit and little else. This has serious implications for the role that universities play in society more generally. In the context of increased tuition fees and the privatization of student debt, people from working class backgrounds are being pushed out of higher education, flying in the face of any notion of universities as places of knowledge that are open to everyone, regardless of background. Recent structural changes to HE mean universities are becoming another avenue through which companies can make a huge amount of profit. As soon as education becomes commodified, it stops being something that is good because it benefits society as a whole. Knowledge isn’t something you should be able to put a price on.
4. Privatization is ideology.
The current Coalition government it determined to privatize everything from universities to the NHS. Privatization is an ideological choice: we all know the NHS, benefits claimants and universities didn’t cause the economic mess that the country is in. The decision to cut these particular areas is less about practicality and more about a political opportunity: austerity is being used to prioritize profit over people. This sets a dangerous precedent, not just for universities, but for society as a whole. We are becoming a society where money is the determining factor in which doors are open or shut to you. If we can’t fight back on our campuses, where can we?