Equality drive threatened by freedom to set wages

23rd May 2003 at 01:00
Lecturers fear government plans for vocational education could lead to dumping of problem pupils, Steve Hook reports

THENatfhe conference opens under a cloud this weekend, when delegates will hear the campaign for pay parity with schoolteachers is already looking decidedly rocky.

Industrial action was called off in March when members voted for a deal which would give qualified lecturers a starting salary of pound;18,217 but early indications at Natfhe head office are that many colleges will not be paying the extra cash.

The deal forms just a small part of Natfhe's ultimate objective of pay parity with schoolteachers across the board, and yet even this achievement is threatened by colleges' ability to set their own pay levels.

Early indications at Natfhe headquarters are that, while a majority of colleges have implemented the new deal, a significant number have not, creating the likelihood that localised industrial action is on the way.

Once again, the union is faced with having to negotiate a new deal for lecturers while, simultaneously, it fights a rearguard action over deals already thrashed out with the Association of Colleges but not honoured by individual colleges.

A key objective for the union as it negotiates with the AoC is to come to an agreement which is implemented in all colleges.

Barry Lovejoy, head of colleges at Natfhe, said: "We need a consistent approach across the colleges. We've got to have a rational system for pay which can be implemented in all colleges."

The union and the AoC claim the pay working party is continuing to do constructive business, the last meeting having taken place on May 7.

Both sides are reluctant to say too much about the details of the discussions but the new pay structure looks likely to have two main components.

Firstly, simplification of the lecturers' 14-point pay scales will be proposed and, secondly, some recognition in the pay structure for certain "job families" within colleges will be suggested, drawing distinctions between types of employee - such as lecturers, "advanced practitioners" and support staff.

At the root of Natfhe's problems, according to its own analysis, is incorporation of colleges which, in 1993, gave them autonomy over their own budgets, including pay levels.

Since then, lecturers' salaries have steadily fallen behind schoolteachers'. Lecturers' pay has gone from 10 per cent ahead of schoolteachers to 12 per cent behind. More than 100,000 lecturers have quit and lecturing has become the most casualised profession in the country.

The tone of rostrum speakers at successive Natfhe conferences as they hark back to the "Silver Book" - the contract which lecturers enjoyed before incorporation - may sound misty-eyed but, from the union's point of view, at least the old arrangements meant a deal was a deal.

The present voluntary nature of nationally-agreed pay settlements means salaries become a soft target for colleges wishing to trim their budgets while, in other colleges, pay increases are awarded above the negotiated level.

Those with local financial difficulties, such as funding claw-backs because of a failure to recruit the predicted number of students, will argue that they cannot afford pay increases.


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