When More Means Less
Earlier this year I wrote about the planned changes to mental health provision for students at the University of Essex. The details were murky but the outline was clear enough: yet more cuts and outsourcing. Though seemingly unwilling to give staff and students a clear explanation of what was going to happen, the university was at pains to emphasise one point: that this was to be an ‘expansion’ of counselling provision for students – a 30 per cent expansion, no less.
I wrote to the registrar, asking for an explanation of how this figure was arrived at. He never replied. But at a recent ‘all-staff briefing’ on the planned changes, organised at the request of our local union branch, we were able – not without some difficulty – to tease out the answer from those tasked with implementing the changes (behind whom stood, both physically and figuratively, a higher tier of management whose standard practice, wherever possible, is to find middlemen – whether mental health workers or academics – both to shoulder the burden and to take the flak for destructive policies).
Until now, students who are referred for counselling have been entitled to up to six sessions, already woefully insufficient for those with deep-seated problems. Now this quota will be cut to four sessions, i.e. by a third. But brilliantly – like a joke so bad that you couldn’t work it out because you’d convinced yourself there must be more to it – this makes it possible to say that counselling can now be extended to 30 per cent more students, without actually increasing the overall amount of counselling offered. See what they did there? Though it won’t be so funny when the human costs of yet another squeeze begin to make themselves felt, in the form of (for example) more preventable suicides – at which point waters can always be muddied and responsibility shirked.
At the meeting, it was also confirmed that student counselling will be outsourced to the private, for-profit company Validium (slogan: ‘increasing workforce value’), as has already happened with staff services. We haven’t been told what effects this will have on the pay and conditions of the counsellors whose contracts will be transferred, but it doesn’t take a genius to work out their likely direction. Speaking of genius, here’s another brilliant idea: by cutting counsellors’ salaries – by, I don’t know, a third? – a company like Validium could employ more staff, increasing its ‘provision’ and its market share. It isn’t difficult to see where those in control of universities learn their tricks.