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Four colleges heading for strike action

Despite 85% of those voting in the ballot backing strikes, the law means walkouts can only take place at four colleges

The University and College Union (UCU) balloted members at 110 colleges to ask if they were prepared to take strike action

Despite 85% of those voting in the ballot backing strikes, the law means walkouts can only take place at four colleges

College staff look set to walk out at four colleges this autumn, as ballots at 106 other colleges fail to meet to the government’s tough new strike thresholds.

In August, the University and College Union (UCU) balloted members at 110 colleges to ask if they were prepared to take strike action.

Nationally, 85 per cent of those who took part in the ballot, which closed on Friday, voted for walkouts. However, new strike laws mean that only four UCU branches can take part in legal strike action. The Trade Union Act 2016, which came into force last year, means that for strike action to be legal, 50 per cent of union members have to vote in ballots, with a majority voting in favour of strike action.

Turnout across the country was 31 per cent, falling short of the threshold and ruling out national strike action at this stage. As the ballot is disaggregated, branches that meet the 50 per cent threshold can take strike action. This threshold was only met by the UCU branches at Bath College, Bradford College, New College Swindon and Petroc.

No extra money for pay rise from government 

Strike ballots were sent out to UCU members at 110 colleges in England where the union’s pay claim for 2018-19 has not yet been accepted.

Pay in FE is set through national negotiations between the AoC and unions representing FE staff: the UCU, the NEU, Unison, GMB and Unite. If an agreement is struck, it is then down to individual colleges to decide whether to implement it. FE unions have submitted to employers' body the Association of Colleges (AoC) a pay claim of 5 per cent for the 2018-19 academic year, and a guaranteed minimum increase of £1,500 for the lowest paid staff.

In July, AoC chief executive David Hughes said colleges were prepared to offer a “substantial” pay rise for staff – but only if the government agreed to foot the bill. Mr Hughes wrote to the education secretary Damian Hinds calling for a pay deal of "at least" 5 per cent over two years.

Skills minister Anne Milton responded to the letter in August saying there will be no extra funding for FE until the 2019 spending review at the earliest, despite the DfE announcing last month that school teachers are set for a pay rise of up to 3.5 per cent from September.

Next steps considered

At the UCU annual congress in June, the union’s head of FE, Andrew Harden, told the FE sector conference that the union should aim for 50 or more colleges to walk out in the autumn, taking inspiration from the so-called "FE 15" – a group of colleges that have supported strike action this year.

UCU has said that college staff have seen their pay fall by 25 per cent over the past decade. Last week, up to 3,000 college staff, students and supporters marched through Westminster calling for fair pay for FE staff and fair funding for colleges.

A UCU spokesperson said the union’s FE committee members will be meeting in the coming days to discuss the ballot results and next steps.

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