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Barnsley staff gear up to strike over jobs

Lecturers warn of walk-out as MPbattles to save college from pound;6m bill, reports Steve Hook.

TROUBLED Barnsley College has been told it faces a walk-out by lecturers if its financial crisis leads to compulsory redundancies.

Eric Illsley, Barnsley Central's Labour MP, has warned that industrial action over compulsory redundancies would be "unhelpful" but admits there is little chance of job-losses being avoided. The college may have to repay up to pound;6 million to the Further Education Funding Council after failing to reach targets for funding units in 96-97 and 97-98.

Its branch of the lecturers' union NATFHE voted unanimously on Friday to hold a strike ballot if jobs are threatened.

The college refuses to discuss its plans in detail with the union. Auditors are currently attempting to unravel the alleged mismanagement of Barnsley's budget, in particular the involvement of Progress Training - a franchise organisation which received funding through the college. Principal David Eade was a director of Progress, which is now in liquidation. He has been on extended sick leave.

Mr Illsley hopes to meet David Blunkett, the Education Secretary, in the next few weeks to lobby for a rescue package for the college. He wants the pay-back period extended from two years to three and will argue that there is a "special case" for government cash to bail the college out of its difficulties.

"I don't think it is realistic that we can save all the jobs but it is important to protect the mainstream business of the college, the core courses such as A-levels, because there are no other facilities like this in Barnsley.

"I think it is possible to argue that Barnsley is a special case. The college is extremely important in this town.

"But an industrial dispute at the college is not going to be helpful. The college faces job losses. There is no doubt about that. But I don't really see what lecturers going on strike is going to achieve. It would be the wrong reaction. Having had the decline of mining, that is the last thing we need. The college needs all the support it can get.

NATFHE has called for the posts of the entire board of governors to be re-advertised and it passed a motion of no confidence in Mr Eade, Michelle Squires, the suspended acting principal, Ann Oldroyd, the suspended clerk and director of corporate resources, and Jeff Biggin, the vice-chairman. The FEFC stresses that the suspensions, on full pay, are "purely procedural".

"We're not saying that none of the governors should be re-appointed but what we do need is a completely fresh start," said Dave Gibson, of the Barnsley branch of NATFHE.

It says the new board should include two staff representatives.

It also wants the college to abandon the use of agency staff from Education Lecturing Services, who are believed to account for around 30 per cent of the college's teaching hours.

It is demanding a meeting with management at which full disclosure of the college's finances can be made. The college has so far refused to do this, although routine joint consultative council meetings still take place.

The union is also attempting to get the 3.3 per cent pay rise awarded as part of lecturers' basic pay. So far, it has been given as bonuses.

The Association for College Management has sent case workers to Barnsley to support its 28 members on the campus. John Mowbray, its general secretary, said: "When a college is in a mess like this it means jobs will go and it is managers who are most exposed because they are the most expensive people. But we feel strike action is not the right step because this will only harm students. Our role is to recognise that the college is in a mess and to help with the recovery."

Mike Bridgman, chair of studies on the college executive board, has been appointed acting principal.

The investigation is being carried out by the National Audit Office and the FEFC's auditors. Further information has been passed to Detective Chief Inspector Rob Haworth at Barnsley CID, although this is not believed to include evidence of criminality. Police action could follow if the auditors' investigation produces evidence of criminality.

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