Strike highlights cash crisis

Lecturers and colleges may not be united over industrial action, but everyone agrees the sector needs moremoney to increase pay. Steve Hook reports

EMPLOYERS and unions were united on at least one point as lecturers walked out for more pay this week - the sector is starved of cash.

The strike by members of NATFHE, on Tuesday and Wednesday this week, came on the eve of the lecturers' union's annual conference, in Torquay, when pay will be top of the agenda.

"The root problem causing this strike is the financial crisis facing further education colleges across the country," said Ivor Jones, director of employment policy at the Association of Colleges, which represents the employers in the annual round of pay negotiations with the unions.

His colleagues in the AOC effectively pulled out of the negotiations this year when they reluctantly concluded that there was not enough money in the system to improve on the 1.5 per cent offer.

There was never even a remote chance that NATFHE would have accepted this offer and some argued it should not have been made to start with. The union wants lecturers' pay brought into line with schoolteachers, but currently only sees the gap widening.

Even the argument that lecturers need minimum professional qualifications before they can expect the same pay as teachers, or, more bluntly, that they are less valuable because they are less well-qualified, has not been holding water. There is increasing evidence that schools, with their own recruitment problems, have been luring lecturers, both qualified and unqualified, into classrooms for significant pay increases.

Experience, it seems, is more highly-valued in some schools than in some parts of the further education system.

The AOC and the Government have done their best to take the public relations sting out of the NATFHE action.

The Department for Education and Skills predicted only around 10,000 lecturers would strike - just those who actually voted "yes" in the ballot.

NATFHE has predicted three times this number will observe the strike - most of those who were sent ballot papers. Even this number, says NATFHE, is artificially restricted because the requirements of Labour's employment legislation left 40 college branches unable to ballot their members.

The AOC, as in previous years, stressed that "only a minority of college teaching staff are NATFHE members".

But there is no disagreement between NATFHE and the AOC about the gravity of being able to offer only 1.5 per cent. The sector is experiencing a "financial crisis", according to an association spokeswoman. "Our own surveys confirm that many colleges are facing recruitment problems because of low pay," she added. "Government has urgently to face up to its responsibilities here, and stop starving colleges of funds."

The Association of Teachers and Lecturers "fully support NATFHE's protest", although its members did not join the strike. It says it will consider action if there is no progress on pay.

"We wish our NATFHE colleagues well," said Chris Wilson, chair of the ATL's further education committee. "Both the Association of Colleges and the Government need to take notice of the growing anger among practitioners within the sector. ATL sincerely hopes that NATFHE's action will encourage colleges to make a realistic pay offer."

The Association for College Management, whose membership includes principals as well as administrators and heads of department, says the action is "unfortunate but understandable".

It recently joined the Trades Union Congress but remains a moderate union compared with NATFHE.

Peter Pendle, the ACM's general secretary, said: "No one wants to see strikes in colleges, so tomorrow's action is most unfortunate. But why it is happening is understandable.

"We've reached a crisis point that can only be solved by an immediate injection of extra funds from the Government, and a pay rise that helps to close the gap."

All five unions in the sector have rejected the 1.5 per cent pay offer.

Whether or not the sun is shining over Torquay this weekend, stormy weather is predicted for ministers. With even the AOC conceding its 1.5 per cent offer is not enough, the ball is now firmly in the politicians' court.

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