With massive budget cuts starting to bite, one might assume that college staff would be thankful for a few days off to recover from their ever-more-demanding workloads.
But when Darlington College announced an extra eight days' leave this year, its employees could be forgiven for feeling less than impressed: it will be unpaid and staff will be forced to take it.
The plan was hatched after the college lost out on a lucrative contract to offer apprenticeships to army recruits at Catterick garrison in North Yorkshire, which it had anticipated would bring in pound;3.15 million in revenue in 201112.
Despite college leaders managing to eke out extra savings from its budget, documents seen by FE Focus reveal that it was still facing a pound;1 million black hole.
In other colleges around the North East, hundreds of jobs in FE have been shed in recent months. By implementing forced leave, all employees will feel a hit in their pay packets, but Darlington chiefs hope to avoid any redundancies.
The 600 staff members will be expected to take three days' leave over the Christmas break and another five at Easter, which will save the college pound;360,000 in wages. The college will fund the rest of the deficit by dipping into its reserves to the tune of pound;724,000.
"We're trying to take a different approach. We're looking to make changes that will have minimal impact on staff and learners," principal Tim Grant said. "There has been an enormous groundswell of support from staff."
Despite the positive comments, there has been a mixed reaction to the unplanned extension of the Christmas and Easter breaks. Iain Owens, regional official for the University and College Union (UCU), said that while the commitment to avoiding redundancies was welcome, there was "concern" that staff would have to take unpaid holidays. Eddy Adam, UCU branch secretary at the college, said many members felt the unpaid holiday was a price worth paying to keep their jobs.
The financial problems emerged when the Ministry of Defence (MoD) unexpectedly handed a new apprenticeships contract to the Wiltshire and Somerset Colleges' Partnership, ending its 10-year association with Darlington.
The surprise move came despite close ties between Darlington and the MoD. In 1999, the college opened a satellite campus in Catterick, the largest military base in western Europe, for army personnel and their children.
The loss of the contract came as a "significant" setback, the college said, and it has appointed barristers to challenge the decision in the High Court. The dispute is believed to centre around concerns over the tendering process.
Evan Williams, the Association of Colleges' director of employment and professional services, said unpaid leave was one of the options it suggested to institutions which are keen to avoid redundancies.
"Colleges are independent corporations and have a degree of flexibility on how to best manage the tough economic climate and any necessary restructuring," he said. "Most colleges will consult with staff on more creative ways of handling any restructuring and will work hard to protect jobs and courses. They value their excellent staff and know that the key challenge is involving them in the process of continuing to provide high- quality education with fewer resources."
A 90-day consultation period on the plans is now under way. Darlington College is also offering an "enhanced" severance package for any members of staff who choose to take voluntary redundancy.
But any lecturers tempted to breathe a sigh of relief would be well- advised to remain on their guard: the document seen by FE Focus also reveals that Darlington has launched a review of support staff numbers, as well as the curriculum areas it offers, in order to identify further areas for future savings.
The wolves may have been kept from the door for now, but, in an age of austerity for all colleges, they will never be far away.
BEARING THE BRUNT
The North East seems to bearing the brunt of cuts to the national FE budget. More than half of the 1,500 college jobs known to be at risk in April were in the region, including positions at Bishop Auckland, South Tyneside, Newcastle, City of Sunderland, East Durham, Stockton Riverside, and Tyne Metropolitan colleges.
The University and College Union said the region was being disproportionately "hammered" due to its reliance on public sector jobs.