Unions have warned that staff in FE are at "breaking point" as official figures revealed that the salaries of college lecturers have fallen over the past year, even before the effects of inflation were taken into account.
Justifying a pay claim of 5 per cent, the joint submission by the six unions that work in FE said that staff have seen their standard of living eroded by the equivalent of thousands of pounds over the past two years as a result of inflation. Some staff have even seen their pay cut directly, with the average salary in FE falling by pound;38 this year, according to the Office for National Statistics.
And this is only the beginning. Lecturers are likely to face even greater pressure on pay as the government's funding cuts begin in earnest: so far, just 3 per cent of the proposed 25 per cent budget reductions have been implemented. At Gateshead College, some staff are being asked to take an pound;8,000 pay cut next year, while Sunderland College is also revising job descriptions and pay grades as part of an effort to save pound;2.2 million.
According to statistics quoted in the unions' joint pay claim, staff have on average already seen their income fall in real terms by the equivalent of pound;3,100 over two years, while the cost of living rose by 9.4 per cent. Even the highest paid teachers received only pound;200 in salary increases over the same period.
"Whichever way you look at it, staff working in further education colleges have taken a massive hit to their living standards in the last few years, a situation which for many is reaching breaking point and cannot continue," the unions said.
In the joint claim, produced by the University and College Union, the ATL, the Association of Managers in Education, Unison, Unite and the GMB, the unions called for a 5 per cent increase, with a minimum rise of pound;750 for the lowest paid. The claim also called for tougher measures to improve conditions for part-time workers and the use of lesson observations.
Unions claim that, in the past 12 months, there has been a "sharp increase" in the use of contracts with no minimum hours of work. This means that staff need to be constantly available for work but have no reliable income - a practice the unions compare to the fast food industry. They have called on the Association of Colleges (AoC) to take action to halt the use of "zero hours" contracts, in line with existing national agreements.
They have also called for a national agreement on the proper use of lesson observations, which they say have been responsible for an "unprecedented" increase in local disputes, as staff are forced to bear the brunt of increased workloads and greater pressure for students to achieve.
The UCU is clearly angry. Head of FE Barry Lovejoy said: "Pay awards have been very minimal, tokenistic, in the past two years. And there have very often been places that haven't even paid that. We're beginning to see an increasing number of pay bars, so people aren't progressing up the pay scale. This can't go on, year after year.
"Whether it's this year or in the near future, pay will come to be seen as a very significant point of dispute."
The AoC, which represents the college employers in the non-binding national negotiations, said that the process is at an early stage and the first meetings between the parties will be in mid-May. "This year, all parties face a particular set of circumstances, which means that everyone is facing difficult conditions in these straitened times," said director of employment Evan Williams.