Please can we have a McCrone of our very own?

If local bargaining of pay and conditions is so wonderful, why have the higher education institutions

rejected it? LIKE MOST of my friends I have been watching too much football recently. This has no doubt produced the thought that working in the Scottish further education sector is rather like being a Scottish football supporter. You know that FE (or the Scottish football team) is important and newsworthy, but whatever happens, more significance and more news coverage will be attached to the schools sector (or the English football team).

Sometimes, as in the recent Portuguese affair, a certain schadenfreudian (yes, I know it's not a word - but it should be) comfort can be derived from this publicity: at other times the feeling of being the poor relation is reinforced. This sense of being ignored returned with the publicity surrounding the McCrone report. Though most reason-able people would not begrudge school teachers higher salaries, it is difficult for those working in FE not to be envious of the extra money being recommended for the award to them.

In FE there is no McCrone inquiry, nor at the moment does there appear to be any question of additional funding purely for salaries: the recent allocation of grant-in-aid to colleges was offered in return for a growth in student numbers which required greater efficiencies. In certain colleges the efficiencies sought are so great that their boards of management have not been able to accept the offer of grant and have had to accept less money in return for a lower student activity target.

It would therefore be nice for FE to have its own McCrone committee. Some of us can still remember the Houghton report from 1974: though it did not suit everyone, there was a significant injection of money to be spent on salaries in the education sector. But those were pre-monetarist days before the education sector had acquired its pariah status. Part of the problem in FE, of course, is that we no longer enjoy national bargaining. After incorporation, in an act of recklessness the mechanism for national bargaining of salaries and conditions of service was abandoned, and each FE college proceeded to establish its own local bargaining arrangements.

While not wishing to attribute blame, my perception was that there were peopleon both sides in FE - never mind the Government - whom it suited to destroy the national bargaining system. And it was not only national bargaining for academic staff which was abandoned: shortly afterwards the machinery for support staff went, too.

So look no further for causes of poor industrial relations in FE, and save the effort of parliamentary questions and the cost of consultants' fees - the causes are here.

I understand that some colleges are content with local bargaining: some wanted it in the first place; others grew to like it while others have learned to accept it. Certain friends of mine vehemently defend it and praise the benefits to be gained. I ask them this: if national bargaining had still been in existence, could the FE sector have been subjected to the variety of preposterous funding systems and could government have underfunded the system to the extent it has?

Anyway, if local bargaining of pay and conditions is so wonderful, why have the higher education institutions rejected it? And why did the McCrone committee reject it so strongly, citing the vast majority of individual respondents to the inquiry - the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, the teaching unions and the minister - in support of its view? Why also do English FE colleges still have collective bargaining at national level?

What is good enough for the universities, the schools and our English colleagues should surely be good enough for Scottish FE. But how to achieve this? At last week's conference of the Association of Scottish Colleges, a panel of MSPs were asked for their views on the return to national bargaining for core pay and conditions. Though in one case the answers were so out of touch that I expected to see a spaceship in the car park, there did not seem to be much enthusiasm for the idea.

There is still a deal of work to be done, not least in producing a unified voice for the sector if there is to be a return to some form of national bargaining. As the McCrone report states: "If we are to reap the benefits of a first-class education service we must make the necessary investment now." I agree. Why can't FE have the same?

Norman Williamson is principal designate of Coatbridge College and a member of the Educational Institute of Scotland.

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