UNISON condemns privatisation plans at University of Central Lancashire

uclanUNISON and UCU are leading the campaign to oppose plans to privatise the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) and to halt moves that would see the Lancashire public institution change into a private company.

UCLan, like most modern universities, is currently a corporation established by statute. The statutes limit what a university can do with its assets and ensure they are used for educational purposes. However, the vice-chancellor, Malcolm McVicar, has unveiled plans that would change the institution into a private company limited by guarantee.

The new company would be called UCLan Group with McVicar as chief executive and the current university a subsidiary of the group. The university has recently clarified that the proposals have not been signed off and no final decision has been taken.

A very well attended public meeting on the 22nd January 2013 voiced unanimous opposition to the plans. The issue prompted local and regional press coverage. Speakers included UNISON’s Regional Secretary, Kevan Nelson, the University and College Union’s (UCU) head of Higher Education, Michael MacNeil; and the TUC Regional Secretary, Lynn Collins.

UCU Head of Higher Education, Michael MacNeil, said: “We do not believe UCLAN making arrangements with private firms to radically alter its mission is a wise move. These plans seem to be driven by the vice-chancellor, who will become the chief executive of the new company.

“Our universities’ reputations for excellence are built on the fact that education, not profit, comes first. The problems from America make it quite clear that we need greater regulation of the for-profit sector currently circling higher education. We have serious concerns that private equity funds will come in seeking a quick buck.”

Kevan Nelson, Regional Secretary UNISON North West, said: “It is crucial that we continue to work together to defend public services. UNISON is totally committed to safeguarding public education and to ensuring that the educational infrastructure of the North West retains its core commitment to excellence which is open and accountable to local people. UNISON will work to maintain educational provision throughout schools, further and higher education which is accessible and driven by public value and public service rather than profit.”

UNISON fears the privatisation plans will erode scrutiny of the university’s decisions and allow private equity funds a much sought-after route into UK higher education. Although the university would remain a charity, the proposed changes would make it easier for the university to slim down its governance structures and possibly regroup some or all of its assets into a for-profit subsidiary company.

A recent report by Senator Tom Harkin into the scandal of for-profit companies in America concluded that for-profit companies – especially those with private equity backing – need greater regulation. In America for-profit companies offer derisory graduation rates, crushing levels of debt and degrees of dubious value. According to the US Education Trust, only 20 per cent of students at for-profit colleges complete a four-year course, and a fifth of those who do finish default on their loans within three years.

Denise Ward’s (Chair UNISON Higher Education), letter of support has been published in national media:

“The University of Central Lancashire (UCLan)’s proposal to become a company limited by guarantee should be of profound concern to all those who believe in a transparent, public higher education system. The plan strikes at the core of the UK academy and sets a dangerous precedent for the rest of the sector.

The university is clear in its aim to encourage investment to expand its overseas campuses. UNISON is concerned that the proposal jeopardises UCLan’s financial security by leaving it exposed to asset-strippers. Private equity funds have a terrible reputation for attacking staff and saddling their companies with unsustainable debt. In the US, for-profit universities backed by such funds are a public scandal.

UCLan’s move would have a devastating impact on the local economy, access to education, academic provision, the student experience and staff morale. Privatisation would weaken autonomy and undermine the university’s academic integrity. Education should not be run for profit: universities should serve their students and communities.”

Janet Lee, UNISON Branch Secretary, UCLan:                                   

“We are deeply concerned at the way in which the move to a CLG has already been publicly announced by the Vice-Chancellor. We know that an application for the change has already been submitted to the Secretary of State. This is without any prior consideration of the views of UCLan staff or students and without any consultation, whatsoever, with the University’s recognised trade unions”.

Theresa Griffin, UNISON Regional Lead FE/HE:

 “UCLan appears to be overly concerned with overseas “business” expansion as opposed to its core function as a provider of public education in the region. It would appear that management has completely lost sight of the primary function of the University. UNISON is totally committed to safeguarding public education and to opposing this creeping privatisation in Higher Education”.

A petition has been launched opposing the plans at https://www.ucu.org.uk/uclanpetition.UCU has also published a report ‘Public Service or Portfolio Investment’, which highlights the danger presented to quality, standards and to public assets presented by private equity funds. The full report is available at http://www.ucu.org.uk/media/pdf/0/l/ucu_psopi_oct12.pdf

UNISON Regional Council in February voiced its total support to safeguard and protect public education. A media, political and public information campaign has been launched.

For further information on how you can support this campaign, please contact:

Theresa Griffin, UNISON Regional Lead FE/HE

t.griffin@unison.co.uk

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