College with a vision of the future 'like a 19th-century mill'

25th May 2007 at 01:00

A new contract has sparked protests at Harlow College. Stephen Jones joins lecturers as they take to the streets

there's trouble at' mill. The owner wants more work for less pay and the workers are threatening to down tools and walk out. Strangely this is not a 19th-century dispute but one very much of the 21st. And the "mill" in question is not of the satanic Lancast-rian variety, but bears every resemblance to a modern tertiary college located in an Essex new town a 40-minute drive north of London.

The mill metaphor, however, is one that participants in the deepening industrial relations dispute at Harlow College keep coming back to. And it's also one favoured by Barry Lovejoy, the national officer of the University and College Union who's now become involved.

"It is not acceptable," he has said, "for managers of a public service to behave like 19th-century mill owners, demanding more work for less pay on threat of the sack."

Harlow's recently arrived principal, Colin Hindmarch, told his 200 or so lecturing force just before Easter he is floating a new contract which will significantly change their working conditions.

This means that all of them must re-apply for their jobs under a new college structure. One third might be stripped of lecturer status altogether - resulting in a pay cut of up to pound;10,000 per annum. All stand to lose holiday entitlement - down to eight weeks a year - and be obliged to work more hours.

Mr Hindmarch is not the most popular of people among lecturers on a day of action in Harlow's 1950s-style town centre. It's not that they are expecting him to stride down Broad Walk in frock-coat and stovepipe hat waving a big stick but, from the way they're looking over their shoulders, some seem to think he might.

It's that metaphorical stick they are afraid of. Several expect to lose their jobs as a result of the shake-up. The local branch of UCU voted by more than three to one not to co-operate with the re-appointment process and are planning two days of strikes if new negotiations fail.

Others are angry about an appraisal system that's being used to assess them ahead of the new appointments. This involves them being graded on teamwork and "vision" - by which is meant their degree of enthusiasm for Mr Hindmarch's "vision" of the future.

The idea behind the street protest is to win locals over to the lecturers'

cause. Although a minority of branch members have turned out, numbers are swelled by sympathisers from other UCU branches, and there's the usual gaggle of Socialist Worker sellers hanging about the fringes.

Around lunchtime, the lecturers march around the corner to lobby their local MP - who just happens to be the minister for further and higher education, Bill Rammell. This dispute on his doorstep is a bit of an embarrassment for him. At first he distanced himself from it, but as the strikes loomed he acted "as a constituency MP" and set up talks between the principal and union officials.

Outside the Harlow Advice Centre, he gives a short statement and takes questions. "Can we count on your support?" someone asks. Mr Rammell gives a politician's answer: "I am trying to resolve the dispute," he says.

The caravan moves on to cries of, "What do we want? Hindmarch out! When do we want it? NOW!"

Their final destination is a rally at a local social club where Mr Lovejoy gives a rousing speech, promising support from the union at national level.

He is followed by Stan Newens, the man who represented Harlow in Parliament long before Labour's adoption of the "new`" epithet.

The veteran ex-miner and teacher shares none of the equivocation of his parliamentary successor. The new contract and its imposition is intolerable he says: "If you want to bring in change you've got to get your staff on your side."

And how they cheer at that!

Mr Hindmarch has defended his appraisal system, saying the college can not completely ignore the question of whether people are committed to its objectives and strategies.

He also said, that although 76 per cent of members who voted in the ballot supported strike action, this only amounted to 66 out of 205 teaching staff.

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