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Fighting on behalf of all lecturers

Chris Ryan at Southwark believes his stand over college restructuring has national implications. Ben Russell reports.

The man who has found himself at the centre of the acrimonious strike at Southwark College said this week he had to take a stand for the rights of lecturers across the land.

Senior lecturer Chris Ryan was sacked from his job at Southwark, south-east London, after refusing to take a new management job - and a substantial pay rise - as part of a college restructuring plan.

His sacking, along with proposals to convert part-timers to agency status, provoked the increasingly acrimonious 11-week all-out strike by 150 members of NATFHE, the lecturers' union.

The action has brought the college to a virtual standstill, disrupting exams and assessment for hundreds of students and provoking claim and counter-claim ofintransigence and bullying tactics by both sides.

Lecturers were considering their position after receiving a threat from the principal, Dorothy Jones, to sack strikers who did not return to work by today.

There were fears growing about the future of the strike-torn college, after one of FE's most bitter industrial disputes.

Mr Ryan, a sociology lecturer, said: "I strongly object to accepting a job with a gun held to my head. I find it completely unacceptable and I am not going to surrender to bullying management tactics.

"I cannot believe there will not be enough sociology for me to teach at the college," he said. "I'm extremely bitter and confused, because I still do not know - although I can guess - the motive behind this."

The dispute escalated last week when Ms Jones instructed solicitors to extract GCSE coursework from a lecturer. NATFHE point out that it has made arrangements with examination boards to extend the deadline for coursework grades. The union says that informal lessons have even taken place on the picket line outside the college.

Strikers have maintained throughout the dispute that Ms Jones's primary aim is to crush the union at Southwark College, something Ms Jones herself denies, claiming instead that NATFHE wants to run the college itself.

The principal insisted that her aim was not to break the union, but to secure the future of the college and good teaching for the students. She argued that "all reasonable attempts by management to resolve the dispute have been rejected by the strikers". The decision to sack the strikers was taken "more in sorrow than in anger", she said. "The college's primary duty is to put students first and to act in accordance with its mission statement."

NATFHE members at Southwark, however, insist they have been holding out only for reasonable treatment. Both sides have enjoyed national support in an action which has become a cause cel bre in union circles.

Roger Ward, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, has given his unequivocal support to Ms Jones's threat to sack the strikers. He said: "The strike has gone on quite long enough. The behaviour of NATFHE has been appalling."

Last month's NATFHE conference at Scarborough backed the strikers to the hilt, even voting for an increase in strike pay. A conference resolution declared the strike "a test case for the national struggle against attacks on jobs".

But as the dispute reached a head, fears grew over the long-term future of the college. Stephen Rose, NATFHE branch secretary for Southwark, said: "Lots of people have been applying to leave.When we go back the atmosphere will be terrible, absolutely terrible."

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