The University and College Union (UCU) has launched ballots for strike action in 12 colleges in a bid to pressure the colleges to improve their pay offer to staff.
While the lifting of the public-sector pay cap means school teachers this year are expected to receive a larger pay rise than in recent years, the Association of Colleges (AoC) has tabled a 1 per cent offer on behalf of its member colleges for 2017-18. The negotiations are non-binding, meaning each college is free to set its own pay rise.
The AoC’s offer, however, was significantly less than the union’s claim at the start of August: the Retail Price Index measure of inflation, plus 3 per cent – equating to 6.9 per cent, with a minimum uplift of £900 for the lowest-paid staff.
The UCU said that its members would be “extremely disappointed” at the AoC’s offer, which was “substantially below inflation and fails to address the years of pay suppression that further education staff have endured”.
'Strong vote' expected
Andrew Harden, UCU’s head of FE, said the union expected a strong vote in favour of strike action from the 12 ballots, and hoped that other branches would join the dispute as it progresses.
As a result of the Trade Union Act 2016, set out to protect the public from “undemocratic industrial action”, strikes can only go ahead where there has been a ballot turnout of at least 50 per cent of eligible members – far higher than the 21.2 per cent achieved in the last national University and College Union strike ballot back in 2015.
“You would only ballot if you could be absolutely sure you would reach the 50 per cent,” said Mr Harden. “You have to be very confident. This shouldn’t be taken by anyone as an indication that people in other colleges are happy – they are not.”
Pay in the sector had reached a tipping point, with many teachers having opted to leave the sector because they are unable to make ends meet, Mr Harden added. “It has been agreed by everyone that pay is clearly a problem in FE. This is about the future of FE.”
'Fewer people, more work'
At Sunderland College – one of the institutions where UCU members are being balloted – staff were offered a 1 per cent rise.
Learning support teacher and UCU branch chair Kevin Lynch said: “There are fewer people doing more work. We had no pay award for 2016-17 – which is in effect a pay cut – and we have been offered 1 per cent now.
"Sunderland needs a good FE college as a community resource. We work very hard, and still we are not being paid the same as [school] teachers.”
College finance has suffered as a result of cuts in government funding. The most recent data from the Education and Skills Funding Agency shows that the proportion of colleges making an operating loss has risen from 38 per cent in 2014-15 and 2015-16 to 48 per cent in 2016-17.
“Every college wants to attract and retain the best people, but it is clear that cuts to FE funding have disproportionately hit colleges, impacting directly on their ability to reward staff,” said AoC chief executive David Hughes. “We wish we were in a position to make a better recommendation, but current funding levels for colleges do not allow us to do so.”
He added that the association was still committed to national negotiations – and planned to meet with the national joint forum to “look at joint-funding campaigning activity to get the sector the investment it very much needs”.
Among the other FE unions, there was a mixed picture. The NEU said members had “reluctantly” accepted the 1 per cent offer.
Unison said that its members had rejected the offer, “but with responses being varied, the committee decided to proceed by seeking to pursue disputes on pay on a local college basis in collaboration with sister unions”. Members of Unite accepted the offer. GMB was unavailable for comment.
Colleges facing strike action
- Capital City College Group (City of Islington College, Westminster Kingsway College, College of North East London)
- Croydon College
- Epping Forest College
- Havering College
- Lambeth College
- New City College
- Richmond College
- Sandwell College
- South Thames Colleges Group (Kingston College, Carshalton College, South Thames College, Merton College)
- Sunderland College
- Sussex Coast College Hastings
- United College Group (City of Westminster College, College of North West London)
This is an edited version of an article in the 26 January edition of Tes. Subscribers can read the full story here. To subscribe, click here. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here. Tes magazine is available at all good newsagents