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Outsourcing at Sussex set to continue despite initial promises

Background to insourcing consultation

In November last year many of us received an email from University of Sussex Vice-Chancellor Sasha Roseneil titled ‘Creating a better campus - the future of campus services’.

The email spoke of how ‘the original outsourcing of these services a decade ago caused considerable unhappiness within the University community’ [see the Guardian from February 2013 for the extent of this unhappiness], and promised that the University would ‘seek to insource as many services as is possible’.

This email, along with the general tenor of the new VC’s approach, seemed to be in alignment with the campus unions’ long held opposition to outsourcing. At Sussex (as elsewhere) outsourcing has led on the one hand to a driving down of wages and terms and conditions, and on the other to increase in inefficiency as previously integrated services are now represented by different employers.

In response to this initial communication, the three campus unions met with the University in November, and subsequently produced a joint statement calling for an end to outsourcing.

This statement was communicated to the University, who acknowledged receipt in an email which stated that ‘all staff working for the current catering, or facilities management provider, will have the opportunity to transfer to a new employer, whether that is the University or a new partner’, that ‘the terms and conditions of staff will be an important element of the competitive tendering process’ and that the University would ‘arrange meetings with each of the trade unions in New Year to discuss the future of our campus services’.

It seemed reasonable to assume from this communication that the in-housing of catering was still very much an option, that any tendering would take into account the terms and conditions (including holiday, sick pay and pensions) of staff, and that the unions would be fully involved in the process.

The financial arguments

In the meantime the Sussex financial report by Andrew McGettigan, commissioned by Sussex UCU, was published. The report included the context of insourcing and the strength of the University’s finances, supporting the arguments in favour of insourcing:

‘One of the main arguments offered in support of outsourcing in the sector ten years ago was that it enabled flexibility for expanding institutions. Sussex's rapid growth seems to have cooled and when the current facilities and maintenance contracts are reviewed next year, this argument will carry less weight. The university's finances also appear strong enough to bring those staff "in-house".’

What happened next

Following the communications and meetings regarding consultation and insourcing in November 2022, the unions heard nothing more on this issue until an all-staff email of 2 March 2023. This announced that the catering services tender was live, and

due to conclude in early summer, when we will announce our selected partner or partners. They will start to deliver campus catering services from mid-August.

In other words, the university was intending to renew an outsourced arrangement for catering, without meaningful consultation with campus trade unions and in contradiction to its earlier statements about insourcing. It was not, as the November 2022 communication had stated, planning to use in-house services ‘wherever possible’. The first service that came up for renewal was re-outsourced with no meaningful consultation whatsoever with the trade unions.

Outsourced catering contract tendered for 10 years

On 28 March 2023 in a meeting on this issue with trade union representatives the VC and Chief Operating Officer, it was further revealed that the new catering contract would be in place for the next ten years. This, again, contradicted the spirit of the original November 2022 email which mentioned that after the initial services were insourced, ‘we might be able to move to further insourcing over time’.

In the meeting on 28 March 2023, the University had promised UCU it would provide basic information regarding the catering tendering process, which would then allow meaningful consultation to take place. Yet despite several requests this was not provided for six weeks, with various reasons being given which suggested that there had been no capacity for further progress in the meantime.

The union finally received a reply on the 17 May, which showed that while the university had been unable to find the capacity to respond to union communications, it had managed to do the following:

  • Catering tender returns were received on Monday 3 April 2023

  • Pass/fail and threshold evaluation undertaken independently by panel members during w/c 3 April 2023

  • Moderation of pass/fail and threshold evaluation took place on 5 April 2023

  • Selection criteria evaluation undertaken independently by panel members during w/c 10 April 2023

  • Top two bidder presentation / tasting sessions with staff and student community on 17 April 2023

  • Final tender evaluations/contract formation (April/May 2023)

Facilities management (FM) contract to follow same pattern

The University also confirmed that it planned to take the same approach to FM services (currently SEF), stating that the timescale would be as follows:

  • University focus groups and the wider engagement survey have been completed, with an c2,100 members of the campus community participating

  • A separate SEF staff engagement survey has been completed

  • July 2023 – commencement of procurement activity

  • Spring 2024 – conclusion of procurement activity

  • Spring 2024 to June 2024 – mobilisation of new services

  • July 2024 – commencement of new services

There is thus nothing here to suggest that the outcome for FM services staff will be any different to that for catering staff.

Terms & conditions for outsourced staff

In the original November email the University had stated that outsourced staff terms and conditions would be an important part of the tendering process. The clear implication was that in the new tendering process commitments would be sought by the university from the contractors to guarantee catering staff would receive the same holidays, sick pay and pensions as the staff they cater for.

When this initial commitment was raised in an email from UCU, the University replied as follows:

‘I accept that the ITT [Invitation to Tender] is not explicit about requiring parity on all elements of the terms and conditions of employment. However I believe we have shown through the questions posed at section ‘3.8 - Staff Terms and Benefits - Employer of Choice’ in that same document that, in order for us to consider any bidder to be an Employer of Choice, they needed not only to demonstrate their commitment to applying the Real Living Wage, but to satisfy our expectation that they meet our anticipated standard of basic terms and conditions to their employees.

By providing satisfactory answers that demonstrate this, we are then able - through the contract negotiation - to align these more closely with the terms and conditions of University of Sussex employees while remaining consistent with the catering industry.

It was not our expectation that a bidder would already offer T&Cs that align with or exceed University T&Cs, as that would be unusual in the sector’.

This contrasted strikingly with the slides shown to the unions in November, which stated: 'We will also continue to ensure that our contractors pay the Real Living Wage to also staff working on campus... and we will seek alignment with other aspects of University of Sussex terms and conditions of employment, where these are better than those offered by the contractors'.

The outcome of the tender

On Monday 25 June the unions were invited to a meeting with University representatives at which it was announced that the current catering contractor Chartwells had been awarded the new ten year contract.

Two things were clear from this meeting.

Firstly - the unions’ continual emphasis on the disparity of terms and conditions between outsourced staff and those working directly for the University had had some effect. Chartwells staff will now receive enhanced holiday entitlements in line with those of University PS staff, and their employer pension contributions will also be in line with USPSS.

Secondly - it is clear that while staff remain outsourced true parity of conditions is impossible. Chartwells staff will continue to receive the statutory minimum sick pay allowance (which in addition only kicks in from day 4 of any illness period) despite our warnings that this would lead to staff attending work when ill - particularly dangerous when working in catering. In addition, wages would remain low, with no incremental salary scale and no entitlement to the yearly HE inflationary uplift.

Conclusions and the way forward

The only conclusion that can be drawn is that despite the communications from the University in November 2022, the new VC’s current approach to outsourcing is little different to that of their predecessor. Campaigning from the unions has forced some improvements in outsourced worker terms and conditions, but no substantial progress has been made in returning these hundreds of workers to University employment.

This is particularly disappointing given that on the basis of the McGettigan report and the examples of other universities, we believe these workers could be brought back in-house without undue cost to the university.

We therefore call on the university to honour the spirit of its commitment to look at ways to insource staff, and to demonstrate this commitment by halting the current SEF tendering process, with any new process to include meaningful consultation with the recognised trade unions at every stage.

This union will not rest until all catering, security, cleaning, and other facilities management services are brought in house, and all staff working at Sussex have fair access to proper sick pay, holidays and pensions. We are currently liaising with fellow campus trade unions and affected staff regarding the next steps in escalating the pressure on the University, and would invite all interested members to contact us ( to find out how they can help.


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