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van der Walt, Lucien; Bolsmann, Chris; Johnson, Bernadette and Martin, Lindsey (2002) On The Outsourced University: A survey of the rise of support service outsourcing in public sector higher education in South Africa, and its effects on workers and trade unions, 1994-2001. Sociology of Work Unit University of the Witwatersrand: 1-46.

The “transformation” of the public sector universities in post-apartheid South Africa remains at the centre of government’s political commitments, policy formation processes, and public debate. Yet one aspect of university restructuring has received surprisingly little attention: the trend towards the outsourcing of support service functions in the 1990s. Although the conflicts arising from this process caught the public eye on a number of occasions, most notably the controversy surrounding the restructuring of the support services at the University of the Witwatersrand in 2000, there has been no thorough study of the rise and effects of support service outsourcing in South Africa. The few studies that exist tend to be brief, sometimes journalistic, and generally confined to an examination of a single institution. By comparison, issues such as curriculum restructuring, university governance, “marketisation” and the proposed mergers and disestablishment of a number of institutions have been the subject of a great deal of public analysis, not to mention political conflict.

This paper provides an overview of the process of support service outsourcing across the public sector universities, and examines the effects of this process on workers and their trade unions. Our focus is on the period 1994 to 2001. By support services, we refer, in particular, to those 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. The paper situates this form of support service restructuring within the context of government macro-economic policy and the international ascendancy of neo-liberal discourse, and examines the extent to which support service outsourcing can simply be attributed to the “marketisation” of sections of the higher education system.

It should be made clear at the outset what this paper does not examine. This paper confines itself to providing the “big picture” of support service outsourcing in public sector universities. We do not examine, for instance, whether support service outsourcing has negative or positive effects upon the quality of service provision, nor do we examine trade union responses to this process in extensive detail. Nor do we deal with the vexed debates over curriculum restructuring and over appropriate academic governance structures, except insofar as these issues impact upon the support services. Further, whilst we recognise that neo-liberalism, and government macro-economic policy, set the broad limits in which public sector universities have made the decision to outsource, we recognise that actual campus level dynamics may have a significant impact on the extent and actual operation of support service outsourcing, and that the practices and governing structures of outside service providers may differ significantly; again, however, these issues fall largely outside a paper designed to provide an overview of a greatly under-examined area of post-apartheid higher education transformation.

In terms of research methodology, this paper is based upon a survey of university campuses in 2001. One human resource manager and one representative of the majority trade union amongst support service staff in each of the 21 public sector universities were interviewed at length in semi-structured interviews that examined whether support service outsourcing had taken place, and if so, when; the reasons for support service outsourcing, which categories of employees had been affected by the process; and the effects of outsourcing upon wages and benefits, working conditions, and trade union representation. With one exception, the trade unionists we interviewed were members of the National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union (NEHAWU), and so the Congress of South African Trade Unions’ (COSATU): the exception was the Combined Staff Association (COMSA) at the University of Durban-Westville (UDW). NEHAWU claims 234,607 members overall, making it COSATU’s biggest public sector union, and the second largest union in the federation as a whole.
The strategy of interviewing both union and human resource management representatives on each campus had several rationales: it helped maximise campus coverage by raising the probability of achieving at least one response per institution; it provided a means, albeit a limited one, of cross-checking claims made by each of the two constituencies; and, finally, it allowed us to access data specific to a particular constituency (questions about union membership, for instance, were best answered by unionists; management’s reasons for outsourcing were best explained by management). As a result, human resource managers and trade unionists were served slightly different questionnaires, although there was also a high degree of overlap on issues common to both, such as the timing of outsourcing, the numbers of employees affected, and whether other forms of support restructuring were undertaken.

Although a 100 percent response rate is never possible in a survey on this scale, we did manage to secure a reasonably high response rate: union officials were particularly keen to participate, with the result that we were able to complete interviews with union representatives on 20 out of 21 campuses; responses from human resource personnel were also high, with 17 interviews completed. The strategy of interviewing both union and management representatives did help maximise coverage of the different campuses: only one campus, the University of Cape Town (UCT), was not covered by any interview. Fortunately this is a fairly well documented case, and we had several other materials to hand. The interviews were supplemented by an extensive survey of the relevant academic literature, newspaper and magazine articles, and, to a lesser extent, official documentation. The research was funded by the Centre for Higher Education Transformation (CHET), based at the University of South Africa (UNISA), and based at the Sociology of Work Unit (SWOP), at the University of the Witwatersrand, and co-ordinated by Lucien van der Walt. We would like to thank all who helped us in this research.

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