This week, the further education sector faces not one but two events with potentially major impacts for the finances of colleges and those who work in them.
On Thursday, the joint trade unions will meet with further education employers to discuss the latest pay claim. Everyone in that meeting will be acutely aware that over the past decade, staff working in colleges have suffered a real-terms pay cut of more than 30 per cent.
For several years now, FE staff have been told by their leaders that they deserve a pay rise but that it is simply unaffordable without additional government funding.
This year should be different. Following sustained and unprecedented joint campaigning by sector leaders and trade unions, March’s budget saw an additional £400 million awarded to colleges for the 2020-21 academic year. This was followed up in September by the prime minister’s announcement of a £2.5 billion National Skills Fund to support adults with retraining from next April.
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These funding announcements must signal an end to the employers’ excuses and platitudes on pay. Staff simply will not entertain more empty promises of jam tomorrow.
A fair pay offer now is not only long overdue, it is more crucial than ever to ensure the sector can recruit and retain the staff it needs to deliver on the government’s ambitions for a lifetime skills guarantee.
With secondary school numbers expected to increase by up to 10 per cent in the next few years, and Covid causing issues with capacity for teacher training, competition for teachers in the coming years is only set to increase. Unless we see action to begin to close the pay gap of more than £7,000 that exists between school and college teachers, the further education sector will struggle to compete.
A solid footing
The need to put FE on a solid footing for the future should inform the other notable event facing the sector this week – the spending review.
While recent funding announcements have given employers leeway to address urgent issues with staff pay, they are not in themselves enough to deal with all the resourcing challenges the sector faces.
Colleges have been spending significant sums on making their campuses as safe as possible for students. The government has put an unremitting emphasis on the importance of face-to-face learning throughout the pandemic, and it needs to address the costs of making this safe and viable.
The University and College Union (UCU) has called for a fully funded, sustainable solution to create Covid-safe study spaces for FE students who, for whatever reasons, are unable to continue their study at home throughout the pandemic. It is crucial the government steps up in this spending review to ensure that the costs of the pandemic are not passed on to the staff, who have moved mountains and worked to the point of burnout to keep colleges open and delivering for students.
Thinking further ahead, this spending review is also a crucial opportunity to invest in rebuilding the capacity of the sector to meet the country’s skills needs. Since 2009-10, participation in adult learning has plummeted as funding has been slashed by almost half. Meanwhile more than 24,000 teaching staff have been lost from the sector because of budget cuts – leaving an even bigger workload burden for those who remain.
Investment that helps to address these historical harms must be a priority for the government. Without joined-up thinking that strengthens all parts of the FE sector, any positives from initiatives such as the National Skills Fund risk being undermined.
Take, for example, the government’s proposal to scrap the Union Learning Fund. This funding supports some of the hardest-to-reach learners to get back into learning, and provides a vital stepping stone for many towards the sorts of courses that the National Skills Fund seeks to support. The chancellor should recognise this and find the funding to ensure union learning can continue to play its central role in enhancing life chances.
There is no doubt that 2020 has been challenging for public finances as well as the education sector. However, UCU and our sister unions will reject any move to return to austerity pay freezes in this spending review. We will refuse to accept any cynical attempt by the government to drive a wedge between workers in the NHS and workers in the rest of the public and private sectors. And we will rebuff any suggestion that a pay rise for college staff is unaffordable at this time.
This week, both employers and the government have an opportunity to send a strong message to college staff that the crucial work they do is valued and respected. Let’s hope they take it.
Andrew Harden is head of further education at the University and College Union