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Deal on hours averts strike

Breakthrough at college in dispute over new contracts paves way for lecturers nationwide to seek a settlement

A deal for improved working hours for lecturers was clinched within hours of them voting for industrial action. The breakthrough came in negotiations last Friday between City College Norwhich and the University and College Union in a dispute which is seen as emblematic of the plight of lecturers around the country.

Staff felt they had been pressured to sign new contracts which would leave them with an increased teaching workload.

Barry Lovejoy, head of colleges at the UCU, said: "Some improvements to teaching hours have been made and we will be putting this new deal to our members in another secret ballot."

The new negotiated contracts could be in place by the end of November if the ballot, due to open today, goes in favour as union officials expect.

Staff have been offered a reduction from the proposed 26.5 hour week to 26 hours and new clauses on flexible working and staff development. Dick Palmer, the principal, had criticised the union for its conduct. He said the UCU reneged on an agreement to put the contracts to a vote before considering industrial action. Some staff objected to losing the right to work from home one day a week but Mr Palmer said they had to be flexible.

He said: "The college, as UCU is well aware, is working to a very tight timescale to introduce the contracts. Their introduction will bring the college's practices into line with national ones, for which we are prepared to increase pay in line with nationally-agreed rates.

"A lot of colleges have been going through this process of contracts being updated. Its a reflection of government policy and the need for more flexible working."

Susan Sabec, a senior science lecturer, had finished the 49th hour of her working week when she realised that she was at risk of disciplinary action.

She says her situation is typical and at the heart of what the dispute is about.

Despite working late every night, she had not finished her schemes of learning. Technically, that meant she would fail her lesson observations, and two failures means disciplinary proceedings.

She said: "I never like to sound negative. I love working in FE. But it's wearing me down that I feel so stretched all the time, so tired and not able to give it my best shot. I'm not able to be as well-organised and prepared. I'm just not able to do it as well as I want to.

"I felt indignant when it was suggested we could incorporate that amount of work into 36 hours a week. I can't do everything in 49 hours. It's ridiculous."

Mr Lovejoy said: "It's unacceptable for a college to put staff under threat of sacking to change a contract. We think there are much better ways of doing it."

The dispute follows similar battles at Newcastle, where the union lost, and Walsall College, where it won a negotiated settlement.

Mr Palmer said the 175 people (70 per cent of staff) who had signed the disputed contract will be offered the negotiated version if it is agreed.

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