The outsourced university

Low-wage workers have been prime victims of transformation in South African higher education, and unions at universities have been eroded in the process. While institutional power relations that disadvantage workers have placed much of the burden of restructuring on them, the main blame must be laid at the door of the post-apartheid government.

These are among the conclusions of a recent survey of support service outsourcing in public sector higher education between 1994 and 2001, entitled The Outsourced University. Lucien van der Walt of the University of the Witwatersrand’s Sociology of Work Unit coordinated the research, which the Centre for Higher Education Transformation funded, and presented the findings at Wits last week. Making up the research team with Van der Walt were Rand Afrikaans University sociologists Chris Bolsmann and Lindsey Martin, and Bernadette Johnson of Wits’s School of Education.

About 5 600 workers have been retrenched from 18 of the country’s 21 universities over the past eight years, according to data the survey obtained from trade unionists. Universities themselves put the figure at nearly 5 000, raising doubts about the reliability of some data. But the figure for retrenchments is “still very high”, the survey says, and probably “not less” than 5 000.

The support services the survey considers are the “manual and menial campus occupations that do not contribute directly towards knowledge production but which are, nonetheless, essential to the functioning of the universities”. These occupations include catering, cleaning, grounds and building maintenance, security services and transport.

This area of tertiary restructuring has received surprisingly little attention, the study notes. Some high- profile conflicts arising from outsourcing of support service functions caught the public eye — notably at Wits in 2000, when more than 600 workers were retrenched.


But other institutions have seen even larger job losses, with the University of Fort Hare topping the scale at 1 000 retrenchments. The University of Pretoria shed 800 jobs, the University of Potchefstroom between 400 and 450, and the University of Stellenbosch between 240 and 300.

The survey situates the 1990s trend towards outsourcing of support services within, firstly, government macroeconomic policy.

“… [T]he African National Congress government was elected in 1994 on the basis of the Reconstruction and Development Programme, which advocated a central role for the state in economic development” and “job creation and on-the-job training through public works programmes which would at the same time develop township and rural infrastructure”.

Despite this, post-election policy has been markedly “neo-liberal in orientation”. This is especially evident in the government’s 1996 adoption of the growth, employment and redistribution strategy, which “prioritised labour market flexibility, fiscal austerity, economic deregulation and the privatisation and commercialisation of the public sector”. Implications for education were immediate: in particular, “the process of redeploying and rationalising existing resources” led to a decrease in allocations to tertiary institutions in government budgets.

Historically advantaged institutions (HAIs) were hardest hit, with their subsidies slashed by nearly 40% on average in the 1997/98 budget. But historically disadvantaged institutions (HDIs) were scarcely boosted: “Funds redirected to HDIs by this ongoing process of rationalisation remained inadequate for institutions that were already under-resourced.”

The survey also situates the outsourcing trend within changed ideas about the nature of the university. In particular, “the university is being reconceptualised as a knowledge industry, a site for the production of information technologies, a lucrative market for instructional wares, and a key source of skilled personnel”. This amounts to the commercialisation or “marketisation” of higher education.

HAIs especially have taken this path. Only two HDIs, the universities of Durban-Westville and the Western Cape, have had some success transforming into “market universities”. Other HDIs lack the resources, research records and staff capacity to reposition themselves as “market universities”. Falling student numbers and inadequate government subsidies, and huge student debt, have forced HDIs into radical cost-cutting programmes: “the actual situation of most HDIs is more one of simple survivalism”, the survey observes.

For both HAIs and HDIs, despite these differences, support service outsourcing on a large scale has been the preferred response: 20 out of 21 universities introduced outsourcing during the past decade. The survey’s interviews with universities’ human resource personnel indicate that the government’s macroeconomic policies have “played an important role, as have imported policy models that advocate the marketisation of university activity”.

And what of the workers themselves? The survey finds that, for those workers employed by outside service providers, “support service outsourcing had generally negative effects on … workers’ wages, benefits and job security, and resulted in a more unpleasant working life”. Trade unionists who responded to the survey’s questionnaire about this instanced housing subsidies, medical aids and pensions as some of the benefits to which workers lost access as a result of outsourcing.

Trade unions have lost much of their power on campuses in the whole process. The survey’s respondents felt marginalised: unions were not consulted but merely briefed by management, said one. Of 16 unions at universities where restructuring was complete by the time of the survey, only four reached agreement with management regarding outsourcing.

Outsourcing has also decimated union numbers and representation. With 113 shop stewards and thousands of union members retrenched and the marginal presence of unions in most outsourcing companies, campus unionism has been severely weakened.

“Whoever else may be counted the beneficiaries of post-apartheid public university ‘transformation’, outsourced support service workers will not be among these,” the survey concludes. “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 … the ultimate blame for this situation lies with the policies of the post-apartheid government that these workers and their struggles helped elect.”

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