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Contract fight comes to the boil

Lucy Ward reports on the bitter battle that overshadowed this week's NATFHE conference in London. The long-running dispute over further education contracts is poised to enter a new and increasingly bitter phase as colleges begin to sack without compensation lecturers who refuse to sign up to new deals.

The direction of the three-year dispute between employers and the lecturers' union NATFHE is likely to be shaped by a landmark tribunal case later this month.

At a hearing in Bristol, seven lecturers from Chippenham College in Wiltshire, backed by NATFHE, will claim they were unfairly dismissed after the college forced them to give up their Silver Book contracts.

Five of the seven eventually agreed to switch to new terms and conditions and so were immediately re-employed by the college, but the others refused and lost their jobs. The tribunal, starting on June 17, marks a crunch point in the three-year contracts battle, amid evidence that colleges are increasingly preparing to get tough.

While Silver Book staff have been made redundant in the past, the move to sack them without a pay-off is new. At least one other institution, Cannock Chase Technical College in Staffordshire, has already followed Chippenham's lead by proposing to dismiss 17 lecturers - nearly a third of the total full-time complement - who have refused to transfer to new contracts.

A notice to NATFHE officials signalling the college's intentions says that no redundancy payment will be made because, it claims, the dismissals do not constitute redundancy under employment law.

The Colleges' Employers' Forum is issuing legal advice on the procedure for "dismissal and re-engagement on new terms" after finding that "a growing number of colleges" are now actively considering the policy. Until now, the only sanction used by colleges and recommended by the CEF against rebellious Silver Book lecturers has been a pay freeze .

The Chippenham lecturers are to challenge the college's contention that the sackings were justified on business grounds. They say they have a right to continue on their original contracts in line with transfer of undertakings legislation. NATFHE, which has employed a QC to fight its case, wants all the lecturers reinstated and original terms and conditions restored.

The case has added piquancy because the college's principal, Graham Baskerville, chairs the CEF pay negotiating team and was also chair of its contracts working party. He will not wish to be seen to compromise his tough stance.

NATFHE representatives claim staff at Chippenham were put under undue pressure. Industrial action at the college failed to secure any concessions. The tribunal cannot set a legal precedent but is likely to prove a significant influence on the course taken by other colleges seeking to follow Chippenham's example. As many face increasing financial pressures they could seize an opportunity to shed Silver Book staff.

John Akker, NATFHE general secretary, described the case as "the most important the union has taken in relation to Silver Book holders". In his address to this week's annual conference in London, Mr Akker acknowledged the union had made "a major mistake" in failing to reach a national agreement on contracts in FE in 1993 but pledged to "stick to our guns" in resisting the CEF.

Local negotiation has secured agreements in 122 colleges - one third of the total of FE, tertiary and specialist colleges in England and Wales. The union pointed to the results of its latest contracts survey as evidence that it was winning significant concessions through negotiated deals.

The survey found the average maximum annual teaching hours was 784, compared with 756 under the Silver Book and no limit under the original CEF contract. The maximum of a 37-hour week was specified in 53 per cent of local agreements.

CEF chief executive Roger Ward said that the case would have "ramifications throughout the sector".

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