PAY - lecturers' pay that is - is the hot issue in further education at the moment. It is also a scandal. At least that's how the lecturers see it. As yet others don't seem to be viewing it with quite their sense of urgency. Our bosses, for instance, seem more concerned with looking after number one.
It was revealed last week that the Association of Colleges has put a firm of consultants on the job of surveying the pay and perks of top college managers - those at head of department level and above. For "survey" read wish-list. As The TES reported: "The survey details salaries, bonuses, cars, holidays, living accommodation, private health care and death in service benefits." Further down the article a college governor gets to the heart of the matter: "This was clearly all designed for everyone to help each other out in getting more pay and perks."
So if not our direct employers then, what about those who employ them: the Government - those Labour politicians we cheerily voted into office two years back to check the worst of the Tories' excesses? Well, they're not exactly falling over themselves to stuff our pockets with fivers either. Thus the education minister George Mudie's "all things to all people" contribution to the debate on pay at the NATFHE conference in Southport:
"It is now time for a more measured view to be taken on pay and conditions." Great. Thanks George. That helps a lot. Yet "scandal" can hardly be said to be an exaggeration. According to a NATFHE survey on salaries (no cars, bonuses or dachas in the New Forest here we note) lecturers' pay now lags far behind that of school teachers. And let's face it, they're not exactly financial high-rollers themselves!
An advert currently to be found on London buses speaks volumes. In an effort to recruit trainee bus drivers - trainees, note - a salary is offered of pound;237 per week - rising to pound;319 per week inclusive of overtime. Or, to put it another way, train to drive a bus and pretty soon you'll be on pound;16,500 per annum. A lecturer can start on little more than pound;12,000.
But let's not pick on the workers. After all, it's not so much them in clover as us in the stuff they fertilise it with! To take a more likely example, an insurance company advertised in The Times recently for bright, confident graduates with natural leadership skills, energy, courage and ambition. All the qualities you might want to see in a lecturer. Yet the bright young things in insurance were being offered pound;23,000 for starters. That is around twice as much as a lecturer on the bottom of the scale will be getting.
Yes, we know, we've got our vocations. But when we signed up for our job that "made a difference to people's lives" did we really expect it to have quite such a disastrous financial impact on our own? That we'd end up with our tailor being Oxfam? Our supermarket Kwik-Save? Our transportation courtesy of one Mr Arthur Daley?
That's what it's like for full-timers. The lucky blighters of FE who at least still have some vestiges of security. How much worse is it for those who are part-time? Their pay rates have been driven remorselessly down - by up to a third in some cases. Into the picture have come the new agencies - designed specifically to connive with colleges to get round every piece of legislation that might otherwise give part-time employees some degree of permanence and dignity. While creaming off the profits that otherwise might have gone into lecturers' pockets, those agencies have helped create every employers' dream: an expendable, exploitable, quiescent pool of labour to be hired and fired at will.
What deliciously painful ironies this has thrown up; chief among them being the spectacle of college after college, while quietly extracting their pounds of lecturer flesh via agency contracts, nailing notices to their doors that now they are Investors in People! Then there's the notion of our so-called liberal educational institutions behaving in the most illiberal manner towards the very people they purport to be "investing" in.
Like some 19th century mill-owner - remember they were liberals too - they seek to persuade us that it can all be justified on the grounds of economic necessity. We can't help it, they say, as they squirm and wriggle their way round the latest piece of employment law. It's the system - in this case the financial system - that's to blame. So all that remains then is to shrug their shoulders and say that it's not their fault.
Stephen Jones is a lecturer in a south London college