Dealing with Transfield: terrible or terrific?

“Is my university in secret talks with alleged perpetrators of human rights abuses?” Isabella Batkovic investigates.

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The University of Newcastle has signed an $88 million five-year contract with Transfield Services – the global corporation that has become well known in the media for providing security and welfare services on the Nauru and Manus Island detention centres for the Federal Government. Transfield has received 30 allegations of child abuse against its staff working at these facilities, prompting university body Newcastle University Students’ Association (NUSA) to ask the very serious question:

“Is my university in secret talks with alleged perpetrators of human rights abuses?”

The deal between the University and Transfield has divided many, and will undoubtedly be subject to heavy scrutiny over the next 12 months. Below, the views and voices of a University representative, active student body, and an undergraduate highlight the differing opinions surrounding this controversial topic.

The University’s position

Amidst backlash from students and the community, the University of Newcastle has defended its decision to partner with controversial provider Transfield Services.

“Our objective in this contract was to move to a more contemporary maintenance service model to ensure consistency of services and allow us to maximise our investment in education services for our students, in research and innovation, and which guaranteed local jobs,” a University spokesperson said.

Previously, the University of Newcastle had a fragmented and inefficient model for infrastructure management and maintenance services, involving 32 separate maintenance suppliers over 14 service areas. The education precinct conducted a comprehensive tender process to find a provider with the demonstrated capacity, scale, experience and breadth of services required to efficiently manage the University’s multiple campus assets NSW-wide.

“We found that there were few organisations that could deliver the capability and scale of services at the level required across our multiple campuses,” the University spokesperson said.

The University spokesperson went on to speak of Transfield Services’ positive impact on the local employment sector, however this is not what Novocastrians and students have been concerned about.

“UON is satisfied that the contract fulfils our objectives to take a responsible approach to facilities management and maintenance, create local jobs, and ensure spending on education is maximised. We will continue to monitor Transfield’s performance in relation to its contract for UON in the normal manner,” the University spokesperson said.

NUSA’s disappointed stance on the Transfield/UON contract

On 11 September, NUSA released a media statement about UONs deal with Transfield.

“UON students, staff and community stakeholders have raised serious concerns with Newcastle University Students’ Association regarding allegations of human rights abuses on detention centres managed by Transfield Services. Students are especially confounded that this information was released by the University months after the contract had already commenced,” the statement said.

The student body continued to express disdain with UONs timing regarding the release of news of the contract.

“NUSA would like to know just what type of support Transfield believe that they can offer to the students of UON, however we do give credit to Transfield for being upfront about their contracts, instead of waiting until September to announce that they have signed a deal that commenced July 2015,” the media release said.

UON students are not satisfied with the University’s justification that they are only working with one branch of a very large company.

“One would think the Moss Report and current Senate Enquiry ‘Recent Allegations relating to Conditions and Circumstances at the Regional Processing Centre in Nauru’, would have come to the University’s attention. If the past 18 months had no impact on negotiations or the University’s evaluation criteria for business partnerships, then we hold a very low expectation that the University’s statement to ‘monitor these developments’ holds any value or real effect,” the statement said.

NUSA held a protest at 11am on 17 September to dispute this deal.

“This is about the future of our university sector… Do we accept that universities give student money to a corporation that has horrific allegations of abuse and assault against them? Do we accept that this company plans to expand to shape the environment of universities across Australia, shaping the next generation of educators and innovators? Let’s shape our own future and make our voices heard,” the statement said.

According to the University spokesperson, UON acknowledges that there are a range of views held by members of the community on the provision of detention services, and respects the rights of members of the community to hold those views. However, many students, such as Thomas Hamilton, are not satisfied with this response from the education precinct.

What does a Bachelor of Communication student have to say?

Student Thomas Hamilton could not understand how a seemingly ethical institution like the University of Newcastle could strike a deal with a company accused of abusing human rights.

“I know pragmatically that it’s impossible to find a company with a 100 per cent bill of ethical practice, but considering that the allegations against them [Transfield] are child abuse, and not just your usual corporate stuff, makes me question what Transfield offered to make the University choose them over the other candidates,” Mr Hamilton said.

Mr Hamilton went on to highlight the hypocrisy inherent in such a contract.

“The fact it’s a university, which seeks to instil ethical practice into its students, and also that we have a relatively diverse student population, seems hypocritical to work with a company associated with the atrocities in detention centres. Additionally, its public lectures have showcased well known voices against the current treatment of asylum seekers such as Julian Burnside and Gillian Triggs, which highlights the disconnect between UON and its choice to partner with Transfield,” Mr Hamilton said.

As stated by NUSA, university students can be a feisty bunch (as evidenced by two years of unprecedentedly large protests and actions against deregulation of the university sector) and Transfield Services may be biting off more than they can chew.

The next 12 months will be a testing time for the University and its controversial business partner to say the least.

Have your say:

Was UONs choice to partner with Transfield Services appropriate?

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