FEfocus Editorial - A democratic IfL would be more palatable

27th May 2011 at 01:00

"It is not really about pound;68" - that is what this column argued back in February when plans to more than double the compulsory membership fee for the Institute for Learning (IfL) were first revealed.

The case for forcing lecturers to join a body that few of them would sign up to by choice has still not been made convincingly. But the apparent progress in addressing the pound;68 fee is nevertheless a promising sign, since it was, if nothing else, a terrible PR blunder (page 1).

However much some lecturers may have problems with the fundamental principle of a mandatory professional body, it is going to be easier to swallow without a 120 per cent increase in the charge.

One of the arguments for compulsory membership is that the IfL will not be sustainable otherwise. But it is doubtful whether it should survive if it cannot do so through voluntary membership. Nevertheless, it is also clear the Government does not intend to back down on the legislation, and having a protracted war of attrition over fees is likely to help no one.

It is to be hoped that an agreement can indeed be found in the coming weeks. But there is a big risk, too: the talks have taken place behind closed doors, under strict confidentiality. While many of the parties involved, from the unions to the IfL itself, have democratic processes, the individual lecturer will once again find that important decisions affecting their pay packet have been made while they are in the dark.

Whatever deal is struck will have to command widespread support, and that is easier if such decisions are made in the open. That is hard with negotiations such as these, but there is a case for ensuring that the IfL's future decision-making processes are more democratic.

In other professional bodies, members can vote with their wallets. The Association of Colleges says employers are reluctant to pay the membership fees for their staff, not just because of the cost, but because a membership body must be accountable. But if they cannot withdraw their fees, the accountability is critically diminished.

Even in some other fields, such as accountancy, where membership of a professional body is compulsory, there is more than one to choose from and the competition concentrates the organisations on serving members' needs.

Members cannot exert meaningful leverage on the leadership of the IfL as it stands. Yes, there is an elaborate apparatus of an advisory council and non-executive board. But a review of governance in 2009 merely resulted in adding more committee members, up to an unwieldy total of 60: that is a recipe for lip-service to special interests, not focused decision- making.

The failure to anticipate that doubling fees would create a savage backlash shows that, for all the good work IfL leadership may do, it is in some ways alarmingly out of touch with members. The advisory council should have been able to sound the alarm; if it did, then it was ineffectual.

One improvement might be for FE teachers to directly vote for the non- executive board rather than the council of 60 electing them from within its ranks. Members do not need diplomats who can work their way through committee politics: they want advocates on their behalf who know that their jobs are dependent on representing the average lecturer's interests. It is a poor substitute for letting teaching staff decide themselves if the IfL is worth their money, but it would be a start.

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