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A spanner in the works of university privatisation

Max Watson of London Metropolitan University’s Unison branch describes how its members helped stave off privatisation proposals at the university

December 14, 2012
5 min read


Max Watson is branch chair of London Metropolitan University UNISON (writing here in a personal capacity).


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London Met Unison members celebrate victory over the university’s ‘shared services’ proposals. Photo: David Hardman

Since January 2012, London Metropolitan University Unison members have been engaged in an ongoing fight against wide-scale privatisation proposals. This autumn we won a huge battle against the university’s ‘shared services’ plans, and we can hold our heads high going into the next round of battles. We feel it is worth reflecting on how our successful fight against privatisation fits into the wider issues of what is happening across higher education (for more detailed background, see Andrew McGettigan’s article).

The universities minister David Willetts is like the Michael Gove of higher education but without the full support of the rest of the Tory right wing. He’s been encouraging greater outsourcing, more privatisation and so called ‘shared services’ initiatives, and London Met management has been dancing to this tune – much to our exasperation.

Why? Just after the general election in 2010 our vice chancellor, Malcolm Gillies, appointed David Willetts’ long-standing senior Tory adviser, Jonathan Woodhead (who did a masters degree in war studies at King’s College), on a £75,000 per annum contract as executive officer. A year later he appointed as deputy chief executive Paul Bowler, an ex-banker with a reputation as an asset stripper and with close connections in the City. It was Bowler who set to work on the shared services proposals, which were announced by the vice chancellor two days before the 2011 Christmas holidays.

With a history of struggle, it was inevitable that our Unison branch would resist these proposals and we threw everything we could into making them unworkable. As it turned out, another wing of the ‘nasty party’, represented by home secretary Theresa May, wasn’t on board with Willetts’ neoliberal experiment either. Her department threw a spanner in the works by taking away London Met’s licence to recruit international students in August because she wanted to cap migration numbers.

It was in this context that when the shared services proposals were finally dropped in October, our members were rightly celebrating the vindication of our campaign but at the same time worried about what is round the corner and shocked at the damage already caused by the international students fiasco.

Rather than simply try to negotiate a transfer to a new company, we had agreed to fight the proposals outright, which helped to delay and disrupt the plans until it was too late to implement them. It proved to be the right course of action. The university conceded on ‘admitted body status’ to the local government pension scheme, for example, only after a great deal of pressure from our campaign and only after we announced our intention to ballot our members for industrial action.

They knew we would win a resounding ‘yes’ vote and could take potentially very disruptive action short of a strike, as well as smart strike action, over their plans to change the identity of our employer. This was backed up by the recent landslide victory for the Unison candidate who stood for election to the board of governors on an anti-shared services platform.

This was the culmination of a long member-led campaign, in which we used everything we could from a union organiser’s toolbox and engaged the imagination and creativity of our members. Posters and fliers were pinned up all over campus. We covered up the university’s ‘Proud to be London Met’ marketing slogans and replaced them with Unison placards that read ‘Not allowed to be London Met’. An email campaign, which the university tried to block, gained the active support of more than 100 members. Local MP Jeremy Corbyn signed up to our cause. And we organised a ‘virtual lobby’ of the governing body, which involved 50 Unison members photographed individually wearing a campaign t-shirt and carrying a placard against privatisation that was sent as a slide show to the governors.

Our media campaign was successful too, ensuring we changed the narrative from ‘shared services’ to privatisation, which the university was keen to play down; and we called on the support of our allies in the University and College Union (UCU) and students’ union.

When the overseas students fiasco hit us we took the opportunity to link the issue to privatisation and insisted on the governors dropping their ‘shared services’ proposals in order for us to work together on that issue and get our house in order. Diane Abbott MP, among others, has acknowledged that our campaign was instrumental in winning a judicial review of the UK Border Agency revocation of the university’s licence to recruit international students and eventually the governors accepted that to focus on getting our licence back they had to drop their deeply unpopular privatisation proposals.

Union members recognise that we continue to face an uphill struggle and the university is financially weak but we are stronger and better prepared for battles ahead knowing that – against all the odds – we defeated the pet project of our government-backed vice chancellor.

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Max Watson is branch chair of London Metropolitan University UNISON (writing here in a personal capacity).


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