April 5, 2013 6:26 pm

The bottom line vs the picket line

A university’s plan to outsource its catering and transfer 235 jobs to service providers has caused its student body and others to demonstrate vociferously
Illustration by James Ferguson of Mrs Moneypenny on a picket line©James Ferguson

For years I have outsourced everything I can, including all three of the cost centres to boarding school. I can think of so many things that can be done better by someone other than me, so I prefer to focus on what I can do best and hand over the rest to others.

I’m afraid that so rarely do I show up at home these days, I’ve even outsourced the cooking. Mr M can now produce, among other things, a mean roast chicken and is working on perfecting his roast potatoes. Indeed, he has recently upgraded to goose fat as part of that quest. Cost Centres #2 and #3 watched agog as, ahead of one Monday evening dinner recently, he watched a video on the internet to make sure he was doing everything properly. What happened to recipe books?

Someone else who is planning to outsource his catering is John Duffy, the registrar and secretary of the University of Sussex. He states that the university makes an annual £500,000 loss on catering, and argues – correctly I believe – that this is money being taken away from students who have paid their fees. Including, of course, CC#1, now approaching the end of his second year there.

Mr Duffy’s outsourcing plans will entail 235 jobs being transferred to service providers, and this has caused the student body and others to demonstrate vociferously. The protest has included the occupation of university buildings and has attracted a wave of support from people outside the university (the Twitter handle is @occupy_sussex).

All this produced one of the most difficult questions I have had to answer as a parent. On Monday, CC#1 telephoned me. He was due in a seminar in an hour, he explained, and was scheduled to give a presentation. He had prepared extensively, but now was faced with the choice of whether or not he should cross the picket line.

Many of his friends were part of the group occupying the building. They were appalled that he was even contemplating going to his seminar and demanded to know if his academic commitments were really more important than 235 jobs. He was calling to sound me out and ask whether I thought his friends’ request was reasonable.

He said that he felt pressure from all sides, including himself – on the basis that he has paid his fees and wanted to make sure he got value for money by attending the seminar and getting feedback on his presentation. On the other hand, he strongly believes in the right to self-expression. He is particularly angry now that the university has since taken out an injunction banning any and all protests and occupations taking place on campus until September this year.

I realise that time moves on, but I cannot help but hanker after the days when the awkward questions on which my children sought my views were things like the existence or otherwise of Father Christmas.

It’s not up to me to reveal CC#1’s decision but self-expression is an important part of who we are, and I was reminded of this again recently at a dinner with Professor Sir Andrew Likerman, the dean of the London Business School. The gathering of a dozen people associated with the school were able to meet Dan Cable, the chair of the organisational behaviour department, and hear him explain his work on how allowing people self-expression when they join an organisation can make them much more effective and long-term employees. I was seated next to one of Cable’s PhD students who was young and brilliant and made me wonder if I would even get into LBS these days.

Listening to Professor Cable and enjoying an excellent dinner reminded me that LBS has enviable catering facilities, and attracts the highest calibre staff, researchers and students, thus strengthening its reputation and increasing employment prospects for its graduates. This process is almost exactly what John Duffy noted in his March 27 email to the Sussex community. I shall be watching his outsourcing with interest.

mrsmoneypenny@ft.com

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