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Battered, but prepared to look on the bright side;FE Focus

Unison's Rodney Bickerstaffe hopes for the death of low pay and the birth of partnership

Unison, the public services union, is also celebrating its fifth birthday this year so I have been looking back to 1993 contemplating the very changed landscape. Unison was born out of three unions, each with a distinctive history and culture. I believe we have succeeded in drawing on the strengths of our past, but also in forging a strong and modern identity to enable us to meet the challenges of the next millennium.

Can the same be said of further education colleges? Until 1992 FE had managed to escape the full chill wind of Thatcherism. But all that changed with the Further and Higher Education Act.

While Prime Minister John Major tried to project a more inclusive face of Conservatism, we knew that in reality little had changed. The culture of market forces and competition lived on.

I know many in FE embraced the opportunities which incorporation of colleges seemed to offer. No longer having to fight a corner within uninterested local education authorities seemed to some like the answer to a prayer. Colleges knew they had much to offer and incorporation looked like the way to do it.

It wasn't only college principals or chairs of governors who thought so. Staff too were anxious to make incorporation work. We didn't expect to be the first victims of the new regime.

The high-profile stance of some at the-then Colleges Employers Forum, meant that "taking on" the unions came to dominate the landscape - FE colleges became a battleground. At the same time there were dramatic increases in student numbers against shrinking budgets.

Support staff, members of Unison, have been battered by the past five years. Pressure has grown as colleges have taken on new administrative burdens.

The nature of much of the work has changed. For example, libraries have become open-learning centres and technicians have come to work more closely with students. The vital support services of catering, cleaning and security, have increasingly been contracted out to private firms. The face of FE has altered but support staff have seen few rewards or opportunities.

But we should use this anniversary to do more than look back. We should address ourselves to the challenges of the future, I believe that further education is now well placed to make a reality of throwing off the much derided "Cinderella" status.

At last we have a Government committed to an inclusive vision of learning. The vision of a Learning Age is one which Unison is committed to and in which we have a part to play.

It is clear that colleges must be at the heart of the lifelong-learning revolution. I believe that forging a partnership with staff will be at the heart of FE's future success. That new partnership must be based on a commitment to value, respect and investment in staff. It must mean the eradication of the scandal of low pay and the establishment of fair pay structures.

A new partnership with staff will see an industrial relations machinery which provides a coherent baseline, particularly for pay purposes. Part of the nonsense of the past few years has been to see colleges competing on cost grounds by denying staff pay increases. Short-termism in pay will be regretted as colleges face up to recruitment and retention problems among their own staff.

A new partnership also means bringing lifelong learning home to college staff. That is not only about work-related training, but also personal development and opportunities for those who have missed out on first-chance learning.

The Learning Age means that further education is barely being given time to draw breath before embracing the next period of change. Of course, the cash-starved sector badly needs money to move forward. Unison has been active in the campaign for greater funding. I hope the kind of joint working we have begun to see since the election can form the basis of new more constructive relations embracing all the stakeholders in the sector.

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