Ian Nash reports on a breakthrough in the dispute over lecturers' pay and conditions. A new deal on contracts for lecturers at Britain's largest college has been hailed as a "major advance" by their union which says talks with managements in at least ten other large colleges are underway.
But leaders of the college lecturers' union NATFHE were cautious about making bolder claims following the deal struck at Sheffield College. The agreement was reached under pressure of a financial crisis at the college and threats of large-scale compulsory redundancies.
Even with the new contract, 94 voluntary redundancies look inevitable among the 900 full-time and part-time staff, though compulsory lay-offs have been averted.
Roger Ward, chief executive of the Colleges' Employers' Forum, insisted that the Sheffield contract "is tougher than the one between us and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, brokered through ACAS".
But both the Sheffield College management and NATFHE reject his view. Their agreement puts all lecturers on a scale from 800 to 830 annual teaching hours (with 860 in extreme circumstances and only by agreement).
The CEF contract has a range of 756 to 832 in the first year rising to a range of 794 to 886 in the second year. But Mr Ward said it will be necessary to move to a range 832 to 935 in the next year following a review under ACAS.
The principal of one of the bigger colleges negotiating locally told The TES: "Both NATFHE and the CEF's credibility are on the line here. I will pull out of the CEF if I do the deal. But I have to say that NATFHE have been no better at arguing for a sensible national deal for the past two years."
John Akker, general secretary of the NATFHE, insisted: "The Sheffield deal is a vindication of the stand the union has taken." There has also been a marked increase in the number of regional officials in local talks.
Ken Ruddiman, Sheffield College principal, dismissed talk of "winners and losers" and said it was an agreement which reflected local needs. If anyone won, it was "the student and the local community".
The deal does offer substantial advantages over the CEF contract on annual leave. While the CEF.ATL contract gives 37 days annual leave, the Sheffield contract says the college "would not normally require more than 40 directed weeks a year".
All Sheffield lecturers, including those on CEF contracts, will switch to the local contract, which has in-build guarantees on maternity, paternity and sick leave and union recognition. The whole deal will be up for review next year.
But there is one clause which many will see as a serious flaw. The union failed to get any agreement on a weekly limit on teaching hours. And there is considerable discontent among a large minority of the staff. Of those who voted in the ballot last week, 440 were for the deal and 249 were against it. The threat of compulsory redundancies undoubtedly held sway on some who voted for the package.
Sedge Muller, NATFHE branch secretary, said: "It is in our longer-term interests to settle in this way rather than to continue with a completely debilitating and destructive row at local level."