Painted out of a corner

Delegates to the EIS conference were right to send the leadership back to the drawing board over proposals to axe the College Lecturers' Association

ebates on constitutions at union conferences are arguably less interesting than watching paint dry. Maybe so. But this year's annual meeting of the Educational Institute of Scotland in Dundee produced a Jackson Pollock - abstract expressionist, hard to comprehend and undoubtedly explosive.

After five years of meticulous preparation by officials, a hefty volume of proposals was rejected by the floor. The abolition of the College Lecturers' Association, the 5,000 strong body representing Scotland's further education lecturers, was thus prevented.

To understand this result, it is necessary to go back to incorporation in 1993. Since then FE has resembled the privatised rail system. It is broken into 43 pieces and run by management boards recruited to operate colleges like businesses, boards that rarely understand education. Those who actually do the job of teaching come last (along with the students, the other casualties of the change).

Sandy Fowler, a former EIS president, told a recent meeting of lecturers that in five years student enrolments have risen 50 per cent and productivity 20 per cent. And how have lecturers been rewarded? By redundancies in scores of colleges, pay freezes and worsening conditions. Casualisation means 53-55 per cent of total teaching staff are temporary part-time. Trade unionists who opposed what they saw have been victimised. (Hence the anonymity of this article.) Instead of national negotiations on pay and conditions (like the school and higher education sectors), FE is saddled with 43 bargaining units and 43 times the number of possible breakdowns in industrial relations.

Naturally the EIS, which represents the bulk of lecturers, has discussed long and hard what should be done. The union's structure is akin to the UK's with the school sector (equivalent to Westminster) and self-governing associations for further and higher education (like the devolved Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly). With their backs against the wall, college branches have tried to protect themselves. To this end, they invoked the devolved freedom of initiative guaranteed by the CLA constitution. But that created problems for, and demands on, EIS officials, 90 per cent of whose member-ship lies outside further education. In one year, for example, further education topped every other Scottish industrial sector in terms of strike days.

What could be the long-term solution? Taking advice from officials, the EIS executive council decided to end the CLA and draft larger numbers of FE representatives into its ranks, as part of a general union restructuring. It was claimed this would give FE a greater voice. However, CLA members would be separated from the rest of the EIS membership in local associations and the CLA's own executive council, struggling already to cope with 43 separate bargaining units, would be reduced to a third of its original size.

Lecturers were adamantly opposed. At the annual meeting their plea combined with a general mistrust of the EIS leadership over Higher Still assessment. The result was a decisive defeat.

Some CLA members may be euphoric. A measured judgment is probably advisable. One positive aspect of the debate is that both sides have expressed a commitment to helping lecturers and the service they provide. Now that the annual meeting has spoken, it is clear the mechanism for delivering this assistance must be through the existing CLA structure.

Let's hope that, with the conference debate behind it, the union focuses once more on addressing the real issues facing FE.

The author is a further education lecturer and member of the EIS-CLA.

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