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'Sign contract or lose your job'

Dismissal notices drive all but one of 25 rebel lecturers at Newcastle college to accept defeat in battle over new terms and conditions.

Joe Clancy reports.

Lecturers who held out against accepting a new contract they claimed offered them less money for longer hours finally caved in this week after being told to sign or be sacked.

The last remaining 25 staff at Newcastle college who had resisted the pressure were issued with dismissal notices last week which gave them until Monday to change their minds. By Tuesday, 24 had signed.

The sacking notices were the culmination of a long-running dispute in which seven one-day strikes were staged this year.

The lecturers' union Natfhe has taken the rare step of "greylisting" the college, advising its members not to apply for jobs there or to act as external examiners or moderators.

Jon Bryan, Natfhe representative at the college, in Tyne and Wear, was one of those who signed the new contract on Monday. He said: "It was either work under the new contract or not work at all.

"Dismissal notices are often threatened but rarely applied. The fact that 25 were sent out indicates the extent to which the college is prepared to go to force an un-negotiated contract on to staff.

"Receiving a dismissal notice is not a pleasant experience. When livelihoods are put at risk it doesn't leave you with a very good feeling."

He said the college first issued the new contracts in January and its 380 permanent lecturers were put under pressure to sign.

He said: "By July, there were still 156 staff who had not signed, and that's when a 90-day warning of dismissal was issued."

The one lecturer who was yet to sign as FE Focus went to press was Neil Sharp who taught at the college for 26 years and who has served as staff governor for the past eight years.

He said: "This is not the way I would have chosen to finish my career as a lecturer. I have a lot of affection for the place and have enjoyed teaching here despite the frustrations."

He added that, at the age of 58, he could afford to take a stand on a point of principle, because he would be retiring in 18 months time and would have a lot less to lose than most of his colleagues.

He said: "The new contract transfers so much power to the management and removes contractual protections and entitlements for staff. It asks staff to rely on the benevolence of managers, to trust them. But with the future funding of FE looking dubious, if the management can enforce the maximum they will."

As well as appealing to the college's governors against his dismissal, he said he also has the option of taking his case to an industrial tribunal.

Iain Owens, Natfhe's north-east regional official, said: "The union was not looking for martyrs and we were never going to ask people not to sign. The alternative was the dole. It is quite clear that people are signing this contract under duress and that does not create an atmosphere for a successful college."

The union is currently carrying out a survey on the attitudes and workloads of lecturing staff to assess the impact of changing conditions of service.

Jackie Fisher, the principal, said: "All that we have asked is for staff to be prepared to work a little more flexibly to meet the needs of our students and employers and we are grateful that so many staff have responded positively. At no time have lecturers been asked to work more than their total contractual hours."

* Natfhe members have less than a month to decide whether to take the historic decision whether to allow their union to merge with the Association of University Teachers. The merger would create the largest post-16 education union in the world - with more than 116,000 members.

Members of both unions will vote on December 1 and the new union, if they support it, would be formed on June 1, 2006.

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