A stab in the back by the principal

5th May 2006 at 01:00
Alan Ferguson on why lecturers are set to strike over a shake-up at James Watt College

On March 17, The TES Scotland published an article by Bill Wardle, principal of James Watt College, in which he argued that colleges were a beacon for the social and economic regeneration of communities.

Laudable sentiments, somewhat tarnished, perhaps, by the fact that two days earlier, on March 15, Professor Wardle had summoned his staff to meetings and informed them that the college was proposing to sack more than 100 lecturers, dismiss the entire academic staff (730 lecturers, according to management figures) and offer re-engagement on vastly inferior conditions.

The proposals are unprecedented in Scottish education and were, quite correctly, described by Ronnie Smith, Educational Institute of Scotland general secretary, as "outrageous".

Academic staff were angry, bitter and confused. After all, they had taken James Watt College from 27th to first in the FE "league table" and had helped make it one of the great success stories of incorporation.

What had they done - they asked - to deserve this? Less than two months earlier, staff had been informed by Professor Wardle that James Watt had already met its activity targets and was having to turn students away, and that the college was financially stable and forecasting a small surplus in the current year.

Professor Wardle claims that he was forced to pursue this course of action because the EIS "consistently and persistently refused to accept the evident need for modernisation" (TESS, April 21).

This accusation will have come as something of a shock to EIS officials who have helped to deliver human resource modernisation in the higher education sector. Mind you, in higher education, modernisation does not equate to significantly longer hours, demotion without preservation of salary, duties changed without consultation or agreement, non-payment of sickness pay, mass redundancies and wholesale dismissal of staff. TES Scotland readers will be able to come up with numerous terms to describe such an agenda, but I'm willing to bet modernisation isn't one of them.

The reality, of course, is somewhat different from the picture painted by Professor Wardle. Despite a clumsy attempt by him to derecognise the James Watt College EIS branch in August last year, the union agreed to enter negotiations based on the college's modernisation agenda and the union's proposals and counter-proposals. A schedule of meetings was agreed running - initially - until the end of March, at which time progress would be reviewed.

On March 15, while negotiations were going on (a meeting was scheduled for the following day), the principal made his announcement, and ended the negotiating process. The EIS had entered into, and participated in, the negotiations in good faith; the same cannot be said of James Watt College management or Professor Wardle.

Initial reports of redundancies and mass dismissal were based on the mistaken presumption that the college was acting in response to an imminent financial crisis. The purpose of the proposals was not, according to the principal and chairman of the board of management, to tackle a historic or imminent deficit but to generate an annual profit of at least pound;2 million.

There is, however, another unacknowledged motive: the smashing of any collective organisation at the college. Professor Wardle was a leading light in a short life working group set up under the Association of Scottish Colleges to discuss pay and modernisation.

The aim of this small group was to commit the ASC to an extremist agenda almost identical to the one now being pursued at James Watt College. Given the ink is hardly dry on the ASC-STUC memorandum of understanding (every line of which is contravened by the college's recent actions), the ASC should publicly dissociate itself from Professor Wardle's adventure and support the STUC's call for an inquiry into the management and governance of the college.

The situation took a further twist with the Scottish Funding Council's announcement that the college was to receive pound;2.5 million extra for 2006-07 in return for delivering almost the same number of students units of measurement (SUMs) as it did this year.

Yet the facts are that James Watt College has staff costs below the sector average, student figures above the sector average and unit costs below. It has exceeded its SUMs target for the current year, and turned students away.

James Watt has had no history or tradition of union militancy. Management and unions engaged in partnership working before "partnership working" was invented. Staff have "consistently and persistently" shown themselves to be flexible and accommodating. And yes, in return they have enjoyed relatively good salaries and conditions.

On March 15, staff felt betrayed. That feeling has not abated and, coupled with a deep sense of injustice, has led to the 94 per cent vote in favour of strike action to force the principal and the board back to the negotiating table.

Alan Ferguson is union rep on the board of management at James Watt College.

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