The ‘back office’ bites back!

The term ‘back office’ was first bandied about by government ministers.

It is easy to visualise it as ‘fat cat’ managers doing nothing and taking salaries away from front line staff. From the rhetoric that we constantly hear there is an argument that cuts need to be made and that ‘front line’ services will not be affected if savings are made in the ‘back office’. So if those cuts are done who will do the ‘back office’ roles? Probably front line staff. Academic Related (AR) staff have had enough and it is up to UCU and its AR Staff Committee to ensure that our (‘back office’) members are defended against creeping cuts, outsourcing and privatisation. We need to ensure in no uncertain terms the professionalism and skills of our AR colleagues are preserved.

AR staff are a major part of the academic team. We are the highly educated, highly skilled professionals working tirelessly in universities and colleges. We work behind the scenes to ensure that students have a place, we organise accommodation, we are responsible for their computing facilities, we organise the library access, we ensure that the correct number of credits are done, we facilitate the exams process, we ensure marks are accurate and we organise graduation and ensure students leave with their degree. This does not happen just by chance, many hours of hard work go on behind the scenes in the ‘back office’ by AR staff. We are responsible for student support, estates management, grant management, finances, strategy and planning. Academic Related staff are in the forefront of academic life.

In the rush for savings, we are finding that universities and colleges are rushing to restructure their departments/schools/faculties. AR staff find themselves in the invidious position of having to make staff redundant or face redundancy themselves. The ills of outsourcing are well-known but restructuring is another tool which will mean only one thing – redundancies/deskilling/de-professionalisation. As case-workers, we know that restructuring has led to layers of highly professional, highly skilled AR staff facing redundancy. It is the more senior staff who can find themselves at risk of redundancy or their roles are redefined, salaries reduced and so on.

UCU’s AR Staff Committee at work

UCU’s AR Staff Committee at work

Academic Related staff in every institution must be preparing to defend jobs now.

Just losing a few jobs here are there is the start of the rot. It’s really just a practise run for phase two.

The Academic Related title is not used nearly enough in many institutions any more, and along with this our job titles have changed. For example, Librarians are Learning Resource Technicians, Administrators and Computing Officers are now Information Services staff. We must start by finding these people, ensuring they know that UCU is the trade union for them. If they are not part of a union then they are unlikely to know that the charade that is modern human resource management can be challenged – that it must be challenged. The service reviews and consultations are meaningless and the answer is usually decided in advance. That increasingly keeping your head down and going along means everything will be alright is folly. Sticking your head in the sand and hoping its all going to go away just won’t work. The only way to actually use these reviews and consultations is to be saying the same thing, with one voice, again and again, where ever and whenever anyone will stop to listen.

All UCU members need to be aware of how AR staff add value to the academic team. How knowledge and experience of an institution improves our working lives and the holy grail (or should that be the ‘golden grail’ at 2012 prices) that is the student experience. In the past UCU has often noted that academic related staff must be protected, because once they have been de-skilled, de-professionalised/outsourced/restructured they will be coming for teaching and learning next. As academic related staff we have already seen cleaning, catering and works departments outsourced and restructured. We know that we are next, unless we fight to defend ourselves.

Series Navigation<< The assault on universities: a manifesto for resistanceAnnual Equality Conferences 2011 >>