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FEfocus Editorial - A democratic IfL would be more palatable

FE news | Published in TES Newspaper on 27 May, 2011 | By: Joseph Lee

“It is not really about £68” - that is what this column argued back in February when plans to more than double the compulsory membership fee for the Institute for Learning (IfL) were first revealed.

The case for forcing lecturers to join a body that few of them would sign up to by choice has still not been made convincingly. But the apparent progress in addressing the £68 fee is nevertheless a promising sign, since it was, if nothing else, a terrible PR blunder (page 1).

However much some lecturers may have problems with the fundamental principle of a mandatory professional body, it is going to be easier to swallow without a 120 per cent increase in the charge.

One of the arguments for compulsory membership is that the IfL will not be sustainable otherwise. But it is doubtful whether it should survive if it cannot do so through voluntary membership. Nevertheless, it is also clear the Government does not intend to back down on the legislation, and having a protracted war of attrition over fees is likely to help no one.

It is to be hoped that an agreement can indeed be found in the coming weeks. But there is a big risk, too: the talks have taken place behind closed doors, under strict confidentiality. While many of the parties involved, from the unions to the IfL itself, have democratic processes, the individual lecturer will once again find that important decisions affecting their pay packet have been made while they are in the dark.

Whatever deal is struck will have to command widespread support, and that is easier if such decisions are made in the open. That is hard with negotiations such as these, but there is a case for ensuring that the IfL’s future decision-making processes are more democratic.

In other professional bodies, members can vote with their wallets. The Association of Colleges says employers are reluctant to pay the membership fees for their staff, not just because of the cost, but because a membership body must be accountable. But if they cannot withdraw their fees, the accountability is critically diminished.

Even in some other fields, such as accountancy, where membership of a professional body is compulsory, there is more than one to choose from and the competition concentrates the organisations on serving members’ needs.

Members cannot exert meaningful leverage on the leadership of the IfL as it stands. Yes, there is an elaborate apparatus of an advisory council and non-executive board. But a review of governance in 2009 merely resulted in adding more committee members, up to an unwieldy total of 60: that is a recipe for lip-service to special interests, not focused decision- making.

The failure to anticipate that doubling fees would create a savage backlash shows that, for all the good work IfL leadership may do, it is in some ways alarmingly out of touch with members. The advisory council should have been able to sound the alarm; if it did, then it was ineffectual.

One improvement might be for FE teachers to directly vote for the non- executive board rather than the council of 60 electing them from within its ranks. Members do not need diplomats who can work their way through committee politics: they want advocates on their behalf who know that their jobs are dependent on representing the average lecturer’s interests. It is a poor substitute for letting teaching staff decide themselves if the IfL is worth their money, but it would be a start.

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Comment (8)

  • I urge all FE lecturers to
    (a) write to their MP, stating that IfL membership is a stealth tax, and demand an explanation as to why this was not enclosed in any election manifesto.
    (b) refuse to pay the IfL fee until they have had a personal reply from John Hayes explaining why this selective tax is necessary, and why IfL costs double what GTC charged, for the same services to teachers.

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    27 May, 2011


  • Many of us have written both to Hayes and to our MPs. All we ever get back is a slavish echo of IfL's own self-serving propaganda and an assurance that when this gang of overpaid windbags gets more of our money, they will be 'independent of government' and therefore able to represent their members effectively.

    Yes, 'independent of government' - when only a handful of people would remain in the IfL if government didn't force them into it under threat of losing their jobs.

    Go on writing nevertheless. Even if letters only get cloned replies, the sheer volume of them may have an effect in time. Meanwhile, DO NOT PAY. Extortion is extortion, whatever the amount. And if you pay this time, it'll be a lot more you'll have to pay next time. Blackmailers always up the ante when their victims cave in.

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    27 May, 2011


  • Nothing available under the same ECHR which insists that prisoners must have the freedom to vote?

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    27 May, 2011


  • Sigurdur A. Sigurjónsson v. Iceland - European Court of Human Rights, 20 June 1993, NJ 1994, 223, m.nt. EAA, deals with issues involving a case of State compulsion to join a private organisation.

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    27 May, 2011


  • 'One improvement might be for FE teachers to directly vote for the non- executive board'

    A precondition of any progress for the IfL has to be the direct and time bound election of its executive officers.

    Unlike many commentators on the IfL, I do see value in having a professional body with a specific CPD remit. I rather suspect the IfL has become too managerial and self-concerned to initiate any process of self-reform.

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    28 May, 2011


  • It's my view that making the IFL the mandatory body to regulate FE was a big mistake. A mistake which can only be rectified by removing their mandatory status.

    Mandatory bodies should only be created by government out of absolute necessity for the protection of the public and regulated through the force of law (and rightly so).

    Historically they are created when existing systems fail to address dangerous or harmful malpractice. A good example of this would be the GMC which was created by doctors because unqualified practitioners were causing “great harm and slaughter of many men”. The same principle could also be broadly applied to the origins other professional bodies such as Midwives and Lawyers etc. etc. This begs the question:

    What was it that necesitated the creation of the IFL?

    Before I can be convinced of the necesity for a compulsory professional body, I need to be shown if indeed we have such a big problem with unregulated professionals and if we do, what’s wrong the current systems in place to deal with them?

    The idea of a so-called ‘member-led’ professional body, with the sole purpose of rubber stamping hard earned qualifications and putting letters after your name - (QTLS, MILF), in an attempt to enhance professional status - is both opportunistic and immoral. You can buy that kind of stuff on the Internet if that’s what you want to do!

    If it can be rationally shown that the public need a professional body then so be it. But that body must NOT be one which has lost the confidence of its members. A regulating body whose sole purpose is to issue licences would be much more preferable to the IFL – At least we’ll know where we stand.

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    28 May, 2011


  • A democratic IfL is an impossibility with the present set-up, whereby the 'members' have no voice and no importance to the organisation except as cash cows. And so long as the government continues to impose membership by statute, the cash cows can be milked, bled, skinned and slaughtered with total impunity. The only solution is to jettison the IfL altogether and start afresh with a voluntary organisation that has the support of its members, is truly representative and really does something for FE, instead of bleating its own praise and awarding its staff enormous salaries.

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    28 May, 2011


  • Any proposed settlement thrashed out between unions & IfL would have to be put to trade union members, otherwise the behind doors deal would have no credibility. Interesting that UCU Congress backed amendment to anti IfL motion to consider reform slate at upcoming IfL elections. What might an IfL reform manifesto advocate? I’d tentatively suggest the following 10 issues need addressing, any thoughts welcome: (1) An immediate vote for all members on whether IfL itself should lobby govt for repeal of compulsory membership; (2) direct elections by membership of IfL Chair & President; (3) radical overhaul of IfL governance to ensure direct democratic accountability i.e. scrap Advisory Council / Non Exec Board & establish directly elected National Executive Committee; (4) removal of voting rights for all non-elected IfL National Executive Committee members i.e. if UCU, Unison, ATL, AoC seats retained should be as observers only; (5) immediate review of finance including IfL salaries & cost of London based operations; (6) suspension of current failed managerial system of CPD logging, & establishment (via member engagement) of genuinely developmental CPD policy; (7) urgent review of IfL’s equality policies & procedures given demonstrable failures in this area re LGBT, BME, Disability, Women, Part time / Agency lecturers; (8) undertake meaningful dialogue with members via trade unions, elected reps, social media etc about future professional body’s priorities; (9) articulate a new member led vision for the body reflecting current “democratic professionalism” debate; (10) should IfL prove to be viable / enjoy sufficient sector support to have longevity, directly elect fixed term CEO via members.

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    31 May, 2011


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