'Fund the invisible sector'

The TUC Conference has called for public awareness of FE's financial crisis. Ngaio Crequer reports

Further education unions this week called on the TUC to support their campaign on post-16 funding and pay, and to help to raise public awareness of the issues.

The newest recruit to the Trades Union Congress, the Association of College Management, moved a motion calling for an immediate injection of funds.

Peter Pendle, its general secretary, told the conference in Blackpool that one in six of colleges was "in a serious, vulnerable financial state".

FE not only delivered academic and vocational qualifications, it was at the forefront of the campaign to provide basic skills. "But to the Government we are sometimes invisible. The real losers are the students, your present and future members."

Most of the unions representing academic and support staff in FE will take strike action in November. They have rejected a 2.3 per cent pay offer.

The motion was seconded by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. Chris Wilson, chair of the ATL further education committee, said: "While the probability of joint action among FE unions is welcome, it is clear that we need to take the case for fair funding and professional conditions of employment to the wider public.

"The TUC represents the largest voice of working people and it is vital that other affiliates, particularly those outside of education, do what they can do to impress on the Government the need to resolve the growing crisis in the FE sector.

"We say to Congress, help us to win this campaign. We say to the Government, fulfil your responsibility towards the sector. Our students and adult learners deserve a professional and well-resourced education service."

Paul Mackney, general secretary of the lecturers' union NATFHE, who was elected to the general council, said it was the Government's complacency that was driving them to strike action.

"I would ask the Prime Minister, so intent on re-ordering the world, to start dealing with the problems here first. If they can find the money for war, they can find the money for further and higher education."

He said college staff received 12 per cent less than school teachers. Lecturers were the lowest-paid teachers in northern Europe.

He also attacked the practice of excessive pay deductions after industrial action. "It is the right of employees in a democratic society, if they are unhappy with pay and conditions, to go on strike. Only slaves cannot withdraw their labour. If they exercise this right they should not face punitive deductions from pay. Employment law should protect their rights.

"We've had some changes but when it comes to industrial action, this government seems to take its lead from that coterie of feline obesity at the Institute of Directors."

In a separate motion, Natfhe and the Association of University Teachers condemned the Government for its obstruction of European laws designed to protect workers on short-term contracts.

They wanted new legislation to provide adequate protection for all part-time, casual and agency workers. They said employers should be prevented from using fixed-term contracts for more than two years.

From day one of a contract, agency workers should have the right to equal treatment with permanent staff doing the same work.

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