Conflict in the colleges

10th January 1997 at 00:00
In writing to further education principals calling for a new partnership, the general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland appears to be holding out a carrot (page 29). But behind Ronnie Smith's back there is also a stick. That is clear when Mr Smith mentions the possibility of industrial action at two colleges, Cambuslang and Dundee. He also claims "serious reluctance" in some colleges to recognise the entitlement of lecturers to a professional level of salary and conditions of service.

Since the points of recent conflict between principals and their staffs have often turned on conditions of service, the prospects of easy amity fade with the passing of the season of goodwill in which Mr Smith wrote his conciliatory letter. He rightly attributes problems to the changes in college government and attitudes following incorporation three years ago. Some managements have been reluctant to recognise unions for negotiating purposes. Most have had to look hard at staffing levels and at hours and holidays which they regard as generous and now insupportable.

Little wonder then that a union whose main concern is to defend members' interests finds itself clashing with principals and boards of management. Little wonder, too, that in a climate of anxiety and distrust extreme opinions are listened to more avidly than in quieter times.

If there were more money about, Mr Smith's sentiments would meet with a positive response, both his friendly intentions and his demands for better treatment of lecturers. But just as the uncompromising discipline of budget control has forced difficult decisions on managements, so unwillingness to make changes without benefits has gripped union members. A recent survey by the EIS's College Lecturers' Association found widespread increases in class sizes and workload, and corresponding discontent.

It is in that climate that Mr Smith makes his appeal. He takes as a starting point changes such as the Higher Still programme which will affect colleges as much as schools and should lead to better partnerships between the sectors.

But this year's funding settlement for FE does not augur well for industrial relations. Principals resent the financial protection for higher education when student numbers and the needs of the national economy ought to place the focus on FE. Responding to the EIS initiative with more than goodwill is bound to be difficult, and so it may be Mr Smith's stick which has to be proffered.

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