Corporate structure means corporate methods: Back to school privatization special (Part 3) | What's Left
Once a university is run as a private corporation, the other processes of privatisation are easier to implement. The resulting silos compartmentalise research, teaching and knowledge transfer from the university's broader social missions. This undermines the delicate ecosystem that allows for knowledge generation. This is why the struggle to sustain and rebuild a functional university system must always include the struggle against corporate restructuring.
Once the shift from a governance structure of social collegiality to one of a corporate anti-democratic hierarchy occurs, more structural reforms can be implemented. The first of these is the reform of the procurement of services inside the university such as food services, maintenance, mail services, and residence management.
Similar to a corporation that has grown to a certain size or where the rate of profit has stopped growing, managers of the new corporate university will follow a two-step process to make services cheaper for the university.
The first of the two-step process towards the privatization of services is simply a process of corporate “rationalization” and can seem to make sense through the new corporate lens. However, contracting-out undermines the community and centralizes the oversight of those intra-university services so that the individualized costs can be measured.
Once these targeted internal services are commodified and marketized, then removed from the broader academic community, it alienates those who provide those services from the university. At that point, it is very easy to put a price on them and to privatize them completely.
In the world of the corporate university where “efficiency” rules over process, moving services to a centrally coordinated office is supposed to make things better. This process is known as contracting-out. For example, if each building has a computer server and electronic services, it might make sense to a money manager to ask what the point is of having redundant service providers in each building. Instead of that service being provided by each building or department, it is contracted by those departments from the central service provider.
Of course, those of us whose jobs rely on responding quickly to problems would see things differently and wonder how it is more “efficient” to create more bureaucratic barriers to problem solving. But, money managers exist in a world where other peoples' lost time does not count. The corporate university can always save a lot of money laying-off those redundant workers and centralizing the work in a single office of computer management.
This process is known to every public service and is usually called the “shared services” model. It leads to lay-offs or loss of positions and the process is usually more expensive in the short term. However, that expense is argued away because of predicted future savings. The rationale is “Investment now for greater efficiency tomorrow”.
Through the contracting-out of services, managers get reduced to contract managers instead of managers of people. This part of contracting-out also alienates managers from parts of the university community such as those who carry out the services. The result is that “inefficiencies” are noted but solutions are not found. Because there is no one locally to directly resolve an issue it is an increasingly large and expensive burden to address such problems.
Since the contracted service is now fully costed and a system has been developed to charge departments directly, contract managers more easily see that inefficiencies could be better solved by a “professional service” from the private sector.
With the other corporatization-driven changes such as the downloading of financial responsibility to the departmental level, the pressures for departments become such that the only reasonable solution seems to find ever-cheaper ways of providing the minimal level of services to the academic community.
After contracting-out has occurred and a full valuation carried out, the focus of managers is on the continued reduction of costs. The next logical step is outsourcing the work to the private sector to further reduce costs for the university, even if only at the bureaucratic level. At this point, workers are either told to go with the new company or are just replaced entirely with people who will work for less.
Contrary to the false narrative of private sector efficiency, outsourced work is usually provided by monopoly companies through restrictive multi-year contracts. The introduction of profit motive to a university service means that quality suffers. While costing less to the department budgets, management of the services becomes difficult and others in the academic community pick up the slack of the low quality outsourced service. What used to be the sole work of maintenance workers such as moving heavy lab benches or replacing out-of-reach light bulbs falls to others to avoid putting strain on tight departmental budgets.
The result is diminished quality of the academic community and of the learning environment.
When a service is privatized in the academic environment, the work of the academic community is undermined to fill the gaps and to deal with the distortion of that community. There is no upside to outsourcing other than reduced strain on departmental budgets. However, as the saying goes, departmental budgets are not what universities were designed for. In the end, money managers always eat up that budget slack.
These processes of corporatization must be opposed in order to maintain the integrity of the academy and the quality of academic support services. They negatively impact the learning environment, the research environment and the quality of academic community life.
More: University of Windsor outsourcing services
More: UVic’s New Telus MBA: Creeping Corporatization, or Just Keeping Up?