Morris, the ball is in your court

Only the Education Secretary can avert strike action, say college leaders. Ian Nash reports

COLLEGE employers' leaders blame ministers for the wave of strikes threatened this autumn as the new term starts with thousands of staff vacancies unfilled.

The Association of Colleges, which is carrying out a national staff survey, has called on Education Secretary Estelle Morris to provide an extra pound;110 million to avert strikes and improve recruitment prospects.

Last year, the AOC's survey showed that 6,000 posts for lecturers, managers and support staff remained unfilled.

Ivor Jones, employment director for the AOC, said this year's survey would be out in two weeks. "But we have anecdotal evidence that the situation will be even worse," he added.

David Gibson, chief executive of the AOC, said: "The ball is in Estelle Morris's court. She has funds available to avert this strike. Providing an extra pound;30m this year and pound;80m next year would enable colleges to match the 3.5 per cent pay offer made to comparable staff in other sectors."

Five out of six unions representing lecturers and support staff are threatening to strike on November 5 over the 2.3 per cent "final" pay offer and failure to address the estimated 12 per cent salary gap with schools.

But Mr Gibson said there was no more cash, despite the promised extra 1 per cent core funding. "The earliest this will be introduced is 2003-4, maybe later - certainly too late for colleges to improve their pay offer for this year." Colleges could find an extra 1 per cent if Ms Morris freed up cash she had ring-fenced, preventing colleges from spending it on pay, he argued.

But Paul Mackney, general secretary of the lecturers' union NATFHE, doubted whether even 3.5 would be enough to prevent strikes. "It is a sticking-plaster job. We were promised that deeper pay problems would be tackled this year."

He warned that the mood of militancy was growing with the firefighters'

rejection this week of 4 per cent and London Underground staff voting to strike over 3 per cent.

A staff vacancies survey by FE Focus (TES, August 30, 2002) showed that virtually all colleges were losing out to better-paid competitors in schools and industry. Biggest shortages were in the Government's key target areas including IT, training for work, A-levels, learning support and basic skills.

A study by NATFHE also supports the AOC's worst fears. Among lecturers, there were reports of at least two per college quitting for better-paid jobs in schools and industry, said Mr Mackney. "At least 1,000 have gone to schools and tools."

Mr Mackney led a NATFHE deputation to meet adult skills minister Ivan Lewis this week. "It has to be said he listened carefully to points we made and was trying to understand the particular problems of further education. But he is the fourth minister we have had to deal with in this job and with every change the goalposts shift."

Lecturers are still angry over Labour's "broken promise" spelled out last March in the Department for Education and Skills report Raising Standards: Teaching in Further Education.

It said: "Upwards of two-thirds of teachers in general FE colleges will qualify for payments of up to pound;2,000 per year and, in addition, 10 per cent of staff in general FE colleges will progress to principal lecturer with average additional payments of up to pound;4,000."

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