This article was submitted to Debate: Voices from the South African left (second series) in July 2002. It was not published in the end.
Lucien van der Walt, Chris Bolsmann, Bernadette Johnson and Lindsey Martin, 2002, “Outsourcing: The Dirty Secret Of Post-Apartheid University Transformation” (Johannesburg, unpublished).
For all their sound and fury, recent debates on the changing institutional landscape of post-apartheid universities have been deafeningly silent about the fate of university support service workers. Yet these workers, the silent backdrop to these debates, have seen their jobs slashed, their benefits razed, and their unions gutted as neo-liberalism parches the sector. This is dirty secret of post-apartheid university transformation.
Kader Asmal of the Education Ministry and Saki Macozoma of the National Working Group on the Restructuring of Higher Education have drawn fire for proposals to downsize higher education in South Africa through mergers and disestablishments that will reduce the number of tertiary education institutions from 36 to 21.
This move to change the “size” and “shape” of the sector, underpinned by a drive to rationalise State spending, has draw fire from many quarters, not least from the well-heeled rectors of Historically Disadvantaged Institutions (HDIs) who see their status and jobs under threat.
In a debate where all sides ritually invoke “equity,” “social responsibility” and “relevance” to sanctify their claims, neither government nor university managements have had anything to say about the impact of university transformation on the enormous university constituency of ordinary drivers, cooks, cleaners, gardeners, maintenance workers, and security guards.
This silence becomes even more striking when it is noted that in 1996, such workers comprised over a third of all university and technikon employees, possibly over 25,000 of the more than 65,000 workers in the sector, itself the fourth largest component of public sector employment.
Since the 1980s, successive apartheid and post-apartheid governments have consistently cut university subsidies. Historically Advantaged institutions (HAIs) were often hardest hit, with their subsidies slashed by nearly 40% on average in the 1997/8 Budget, for instance.
Both HAIs and HDIS cut costs vigorously, often by pruning staff numbers and income. Funding cuts hit historically under-resourced HDIs hard, and the supposed redirection of funds through budget cutting promised by government failed to materially impact on already struggling institutions.
By contrast, HAIs were better able to weather hard times through attracting new sources of income and commodifying their activities. Whilst most HDIs lacked research capacity, paying students, and market profile, HAIs were able to attract corporate sponsorship, affluent learners, and raise money through market-driven courses and research.
The University of the Witwatersrand’s “Wits Enterprise” exemplifies the emerging “market university.” Launched in 2000, Wits Enterprise is a “University approved commercial company,” “a business vehicle jointly owned by the University and the staff” which offers a “world of short courses, training, consulting, contract research and intellectual property.”
This combination of austerity and commodification is blessed by GEAR, which baldly proclaims the “need to contain expenditure” on education “through reductions in subsidisation of the more expensive parts of the system and greater private sector involvement in higher education.”
SLASH AND BURN
Whether HAI or HDI, however, whether aspirant “market university” or desperate, survivalist, HDI, all publicly-funded universities in South Africa have converged in transferring the pain of government subsidy cuts onto support service workers.
Whilst salaries for Vice-Chancellors and rectors went untouched, and managerial salaries rose as emergent “market universities” strove to attract private sector managers, jobs, wages and benefits for support service workers were drastically cutback.
Interviews with human resource managers and trade unionists at the public sector universities [undertaken in teh authors’ research] in 2001 paint a grim picture. From 1994 onwards, 18 out of the 21 public universities outsourced at least one of their support services; 2 out of the remaining 3 had outsourced in the decade before.
The effects on working class people have been an unqualified disaster. Around 5 000 support service jobs – and possibly as many as 5 600 jobs – have been lost in the sector as a direct result of support service restructuring in the past 8 years. More will follow, as several institutions are currently engaged in restructuring. Thus, at least a quarter of the estimated 20 000 support workers in the sector were axed.
Cash-strapped HDIs were well represented amongst the job slashers, with Fort Hare clocking in at 1,000 jobs lost, but well-resourced emergent “market universities” were also to the fore: Pretoria University retrenched 800 workers, Wits University 623, Potchefstroom University between 400 and 450, and Stellenbosch between 240 and 300.
As departments closed, university managements moved to contract-in support services from companies such as Fedics and Supercare. The benefits of outsourcing for management are obvious: these companies provide the services cheaply, and take responsibility for management and labour relations. Thus, they save money and fragment workers by shifting the target of resistance from universities to outside providers.
Cash savings are secured by outsourcing to companies with a low-wage, no-benefit workforce. In 8 out 11 campuses for which data was available, unionists reported outsourced workers earned lower wages than workers in the same job in university employ; in 9 out of 11 cases, workers received fewer benefits; and in 8 out of 11 cases, jobs were “worse.” The last-mentioned category of misery includes a range of pain, ranging from shorter lunch breaks, a lack of sick leave, to a general terror of retrenchment by harsh supervisors.
As one worker said, well: “We work harder, we do more work and there is tighter control by the supervisors.” To this we could add that these workers also eat less and avoid going to a doctor if possible.
Whilst Wits Vice-Chancellor Colin Bundy earned over R600 000 a year in 2000, he instituted a process of outsourcing that saw, for instance, catering workers’ income fall from miserable R2 200, plus benefits, to a derisory R1000 a month, without any benefits, to “save costs” [accoridng to reserach by Mokoena, Shange and van der Walt]  The victims of university restructuring and government policy were thus the most vulnerable, the poorest, of university constituents: support service workers; the powerful remained untouched
A wave of trade unionism swept across the campuses in the early 1990s, with the National Union of Health, Education and Allied Workers (NEHAWU) in the forefront.
NEHAWU’s dreams of centralised bargaining in the sector must, however, be rapidly dissipating. In 11 out of 16 cases in which data was available, unionists reported that they had not been properly consulted over support service outsourcing, and in a further case, the union had been consulted but no agreement was reached. In only 4 cases were unionists satisfied that they had been “adequately consulted,” and in only 2 of these cases had they secured compromises from management.
Retrenchments decimated union power, with 5 473 members lost to the majority campus unions alone, including 113 shopstewards. Lost ground had not, to date, been recaptured in the outsourcing companies: in only 2 out of 17 cases for which information was available, did unions have a recognition agreement with at least 1 of the outsourcing companies.
Set against this background, the sight of Kader Asmal debating the future of higher education with representatives of the “Association of Vice-chancellors of the Historically Disadvantaged Tertiary Institutions in South Africa” at the Sandton Convention Centre in October 2000 seems both absurd and shameful.
Behind the banal chatter of the well-heeled government and university officials responsible for workers’ misery over power lunches in Sandton lies the dirty secret of transformation: support service outsourcing.
Who says crime does not pay?
Based on a research report by the authors, The Outsourced University, available from […]
1] See Glenn Adler, 2000, “The Neglected Role of Labour Relations in the South African Public Service,” in G. Adler (ed.), Public Service Labour Relations in a Democratic South Africa, Public NALEDI/ Wits University Press, p. 4
 Lucien van der Walt, Chris Bolsmann, Bernadette Johnson and Lindsey Martin, 2002, 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, Final report 1.2, CHET/ SWOP, available from […]
 David Mokoena, Sakhile Shange and Lucien van der Walt, August 2001, “Cleaned Out: outsourcing at Wits University,” South African Labour Bulletin, volume 25, number 4