Tomorrow, the University and College Union (UCU) and other trade unions representing further education staff will meet with the Association of Colleges (AoC) for the latest round of pay negotiations.
For many further education staff, these talks can’t come soon enough.
That’s because, while the government talks about putting technical skills front and centre in our education system, the reality is that further education staff are at the back of the queue when it comes to pay.
Teachers in further education earn around £7,000 a year less than teachers in schools. This sends a hugely damaging message about the value which is placed on further education colleges and the learning they deliver.
Value of pay
Staff in colleges have seen the value of their pay tumble by over a quarter (25 per cent) since 2009, which means experienced lecturers are now earning over £9,000 less than if their pay had kept pace with inflation.
Indeed, many are worse off, because the majority of colleges haven’t implemented even the modest pay rises recommended by the employers nationally in recent years.
Now that the 1 per cent cap on public sector pay has been lifted, there is a real danger that further education will fall further behind schools, with disastrous consequences for the recruitment and retention of staff.
No more money
Despite the desperate state of further education pay, for several years now we have gone into these annual negotiations only to be told there is simply no money for a decent pay rise. Warm words about the value of staff have failed to disguise a lack of concrete action on pay.
Staff can’t afford to hear the same again this year.
We know college funding is tight. That’s why this week I have written to the skills and apprenticeships minister, to make the case for additional funding to support decent pay for further education staff.
But we’re also clear that this is about using existing resource to maximum effect. And good quality education starts with good quality staff.
Decent pay and conditions
If the sector is to attract experienced and dedicated staff to deliver for students, colleges need to make decent pay and conditions for staff a central priority.
The joint trade unions have set out two clear demands: for a pay rise of 5 per cent or £1,500, whichever is greater, and for all colleges to pay at least the living wage.
These measures would go some way to reversing the years of decline in the value of further education pay, and ensuring that colleges can stay competitive in terms of recruiting staff.
It is time for the employers to bring a sensible offer to the table and leave the platitudes at the door.
Ready to act
We are ready to act if they do not. And we know that when UCU members stand up for fair pay they can win a better deal for staff.
Look at Sandwell College, where UCU secured a sector-leading pay deal worth 6.25 per cent over three years, having initially been told that 1 per cent was the maximum affordable rise for 2017-18.
It’s a great example of a college acknowledging the crucial importance of its staff, and the need to reflect that in their pay and conditions. But we need to ensure that the contribution of further education staff across the country is properly rewarded.
The ball is now in the employers’ court – let’s hope that this year they put their money where their mouth is.
Sally Hunt is general secretary of the University and College Union