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Lecturers vent their fury

Delegates at Natfhe's last conference heckle minister over pay and criticise leaders for abortive strike. Joseph Lee reports

Bill Rammell, the further and higher education minister, was jeered and slow-handclapped by lecturers angry about pay at the final Natfhe conference in Blackpool.

Chanting "We know the money's there - where's our share?" and "Stop the cuts", the protesters silenced the minister at the bank holiday weekend conference as he tried to answer questions about the 10 per cent pay gap with teachers.

Mr Rammell's speech had already been heckled by members of the lecturers' union. When he praised lecturers' work, they shouted back, "Pay us then!"

Over mocking laughter, the minister said: "One part of the record of this Government is investing in the sector. There has been almost a 50 per cent increase since 1997. There are around 60,000 more 16 to 19-year-olds.

Targets for improving literacy and numeracy have been exceeded. More students succeed than ever before."

With half of colleges still refusing to fully implement pay agreements from two years ago, delegates voted to campaign for direct and binding pay negotiations with the Government, cutting out the Association of Colleges.

David Armstrong, from Barnet college, said: "National pay agreements are a farce. For too many colleges, principals lack the common sense and integrity to deliver a fair and equitable pay agreement. We must take them out of the equation as much as we can."

Mr Rammell ruled out that solution, although he said agreements should be implemented across the board. He said: "I'm not going to advocate that we should return to government-led, national pay bargaining. It didn't work, I don't think it's in colleges' interests, and I don't think it's in lecturers' interests."

Colleges should remain free to adapt to particular local conditions, which national bargaining would prevent, he said.

Natfhe leaders also came under pressure from members over its abortive strike campaign during this year's pay negotiations. Members criticised the decision to cancel a strike last month, just weeks after announcing it.

They added that the leadership had failed to fulfil members' expressed wish for an escalating campaign of industrial action after November's one-day national strike.

Howard Miles, from the Yorkshire and Humberside region, called for sustained action which would be as high-profile as the higher education strike, where lecturers have refused to mark exams. "After one day in November, we were waiting and waiting and waiting, while our placards curled up over Christmas like stale sandwiches," he said.

Members voted to build a pound;1 million strike fighting fund to support lecturers whose pay is docked during long disputes.

However, the Natfhe leadership believes that the militancy of conference delegates was not reflected in the general membership, which it claims had little appetite for the strikes on May 2 and 3. Members flooded the head office with emails objecting to plans for industrial action, the leadership maintains.

Barry Lovejoy, head of colleges at the union, said: "The fact is that the threat of a strike succeeded in bringing the employers back to the negotiating table and nobody's suggested doing anything else."

The conference also voted to include demands for hourly-paid staff to be given salaried contracts as part of pay negotiations.

And members said that England and Northern Ireland should follow the example of Wales, where the assembly has agreed to pay lecturers the same as schoolteachers, with a ring-fenced fund to guarantee it.

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