Management at Cambridge University recently decided to outsource the institution’s entire estates department to a single private contractor, threatening jobs, pay, and conditions. But staff and students are uniting and fighting back.

Management at Cambridge University recently decided to outsource the institution’s entire estates department to a single private contractor, threatening jobs, pay, and conditions. But staff and students are uniting and fighting back.

The estates department at the University of Cambridge manages infrastructure and buildings across the university. The sacrifices of its staff, meanwhile, helped to keep this prestigious institution running throughout the pandemic. 

Yet now these workers are to be rewarded by losing their contracts with the university, and the benefits that come with these. Instead, employees are to be outsourced to a private contractor.  

The estates workers, organised in Unite the Union, however, are not taking this lying down, and are launching a fightback. 

Cross-campus campaign 

Unite outsourcing MSF

A university-wide campaign – involving students and other campus unions, such as the UCU and Unison – is building against these outsourcing plans. The Cambridge Marxist Society has played an active role in this campaign also. 

Marxist students, for example, helped to build support for a recent demonstration in support of the estates workers: leafleting other staff and students, and inviting speakers from Unite to speak at the Marxist society.

These efforts clearly paid off. The demonstration – held on Friday 12 November outside Senate House, the university’s administrative HQ – saw almost 300 people in attendance. The mood was defiant and radical.

The Cambridge Marxist Society was a big presence at the demo. Amongst the speakers on the megaphone was Marxist student activist Oli Tych, who explained how this attack on workers must be seen in the context of years of cuts to public services – and years of decline for British capitalism.

Oli also emphasised the importance of united struggle between students and workers, in defence of their common interests. His speech finished with a bold call for workers’ control, which gained a strong applause from protestors.

Privatisation amidst plenty

The reasons management have given for their plans to outsource the estates workers are pathetic. Outrageously, they have cited funding challenges caused by the pandemic. This is poppycock.

Cambridge accumulated almost £1 billion during its 800th anniversary fundraising campaign several years ago. The university also owns some of the most expensive property and land in the city, if not the country. Cambridge colleges are also some of the richest institutions in the country. 

Just as an example, the largest UK’s port – in Felixstowe – is situated on land owned by Trinity College, Cambridge. This one college alone makes tens of millions of pounds in rental income each year.

But this money is not meant for staff or students. Instead, it is used to maintain a large financial reservoir that is invested for profits, via various commercial avenues, external companies, and stocks and shares. This includes huge investments in oil and gas companies.

Despite the university’s riches, however, when it comes to paying for staff or maintaining services for students, there is apparently no money to be found – with university bosses supposedly ‘forced’ to outsource.

This is a story familiar to the whole higher education sector, which is plagued by the outsourcing of cleaning, maintenance, and security staff, who are subsequently paid poverty wages.

As well as cutting costs, outsourcing also provides a useful way for management to bust troublesome unions. In the estates department at Cambridge, for example, the lift maintenance team is being targeted with outsourcing first – likely due to the presence of militant trade union reps in this team.

Unite and fight

But university workers are increasingly resisting these moves, with several recent wins at the University of London and London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine showing the way forward.

The campaign against outsourcing at universities is part and parcel of the campaign against the marketisation of higher education, whereby profits are put before the needs of all staff and students.

It is therefore vital for maintenance staff to wage a joint struggle – alongside debt-laden students, and with education staff organised in the UCU, who are facing similar attacks on their conditions.

United, staff and students should demand that universities are run by them, under democratic workers’ control, for the pursuit of knowledge and the betterment of society – not by university bureaucrats, for the pursuit of profit.

This is what Marxist activists at Cambridge and across Britain are fighting for, in the student movement and in the unions. We say:

  • No to outsourcing and privatisation!
  • Bring all jobs and service in-house, with no cuts to pay and conditions!
  • For democratic control of universities by staff and students!
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