Have you heard this one before ...

9th September 2005 at 01:00
As colleges brace themselves for a national walkout by lecturers over pay, it is worth looking back at some of the headlines.

They tell of pay negotiations grinding to a halt; the lecturers' union Natfhe claiming that most colleges are ignoring the recommended pay increase, and union officials lamenting that unfair pay arrangements are lowering morale in colleges.

These are not recent stories, however. They are from 1996; and they illustrate how little the issues around lecturers' pay seem to have changed in what has been a long drawn-out roller coaster ride of industrial strife.

Three years ago, the ride seemed to be at its peak as the then Education Secretary, Charles Clarke, announced extra funding for further education.

Unions subsequently accepted a backdated pay rise, which raised lecturers'

salaries and went some way towards narrowing the pay gap between colleges and schools.

Now the ride is in danger of going off the rails as Natfhe prepares to ballot its members on a national strike in November, after rejecting a 2.8 per cent pay offer. This follows a year of disputes across colleges in protest over a failure to implement last year's pay deal.

Barry Lovejoy, the head of Natfhe's colleges department, believes the unrest in FE is unique among industrial disputes. "I don't know of any other sector where, year-on-year, members have to take strike action not only to get a pay offer but also on top of that, to make sure that pay offer is implemented," he said.

The origins of the dispute go back to 1993 when, under the Further and Higher Education Act of the previous year, all FE and sixth form colleges were taken out of local education authority control to become corporate institutions.

Soon, Natfhe members were on strike at around 100 colleges over the introduction of new, unnegotiated contracts. Subsequently, a union pay claim was rejected and the then employers' national body, the Colleges'

Employers' Forum, said it would offer a 2.9 per cent increase only to those who had moved to the new contracts.

In September 1994, national talks collapsed and the union began pushing for negotiations with individual colleges. The following year, its newspaper, The Lecturer, reported: "Since 1993, lecturers' pay has become so fragmented that, in most colleges, significantly different pay is awarded to colleagues doing the same job."

In the late 1990s, Natfhe began talks on a national framework for lecturers' terms and conditions and a national offer on pay. In 1999, the union and the Association of Colleges signed a joint statement ending the six-year national dispute over employment contracts, and reaffirming commitment to national pay bargaining.

By 2000, the gap between lecturers' and school teachers' pay was at least 8 per cent and widening, the union said. By then, it had signed up to a new partnership approach to pay negotiations - the FE National Joint Forum. It became an uneasy partnership. The union complained that a high proportion of colleges were failing to pay an agreed 3.3 per cent pay rise.

In May 2001, lecturers staged a one-day strike after a claim for a flat Pounds 3,000 pay increase failed. The unrest continued, with Natfhe bemoaning "year after year of broken promises".

In March 2002, six FE college unions joined forces to submit the first ever joint pay claim to the Association of Colleges. A Natfhe-commissioned report, published on day one of a nationwide two-day strike by 32,000 lecturers, claimed poor pay and demanding workloads were making it increasingly difficult to replace an ageing FE workforce. In 2003 a breakthrough was in sight as the unions were offered a 6 per cent pay deal over two years. A key element of the deal was a new pay structure, changing from a 14-point pay scale to eight points, each worth 6 per cent for lecturers.

It was seen as taking a "significant step" towards pay parity with school teachers. Natfhe recommended its members accept the deal, but was cautious, claiming 41 per cent of colleges had failed to implement the previous year's 3.5 per cent pay deal. It warned of strikes unless the new award was paid in full.

Then the funding crisis hit, forcing colleges to make cutbacks, and once again English colleges' autonomy over pay decisions became a major issue.

In Welsh colleges, the National Assembly has protected lecturers' pay.

Natfhe says that 34 per cent of colleges have implemented the two-year modernising pay deal while 23 per cent are still in talks.

This summer, after a 2.8 per cent pay offer from the AoC in the face of a 7 per cent claim to narrow the pay gap between colleges and schools, the union's patience seems to have snapped.

Next month, Natfhe will ballot its members on a national strike in November. If the vote is yes, it could lead to an indefinite walk-out, plunging colleges into their biggest bout of industrial action since incorporation.

Mr Lovejoy said the Government has to take action to address the funding gap between schools and colleges. He describes the pay issue as " a long and sorry tale".

"The question has to be asked, Who would go into FE as a career faced with that scenario?" he said. " It's not very attractive, and the basic facts are that we have to replace nearly 50 per cent of the workforce over the next eight to ten years."

Sue Dutton, deputy chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said while negotiations between its members and trade unions has "not been without difficulties", the partnership had produced important successes.

"The number of member colleges implementing the annual pay award has risen in the past 12 years. In 2004 more than 94 per cent of member colleges either matched or exceeded the 3 per cent recommendation," she said.

"The challenge for the next few years centres on the balance that must be found between the changes in FE funding driven by Government targets and the expectations of a modern, highly qualified, flexible and appropriately motivated and rewarded workforce."

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