IfL: reform or die

24th February 2012 at 00:00

When I meet members of the University and College Union (UCU), conversation often turns to their experience with the Institute for Learning (IfL) and this is the subject that excites the most passion and anger. That is why I have welcomed the independent review of the IfL and continuing professional development (CPD) commissioned by FE minister John Hayes. The review came about because of the boycott of the IfL by UCU members and it has an important job to do if it is to repair the damage done in recent years.

It was the IfL's decision this time last year to charge a membership fee of #163;68 that kick-started the UCU's campaign. The UCU had warned in 2010 that the majority of staff saw little value in the institute's services, with a survey showing that 84 per cent would not pay any sort of fee on principle. Yet the opposition to the fee seemed to take the IfL completely by surprise.

Being out of touch with members is one of a number of problems for the IfL, which also include the mandatory element of membership, the nature and quality of service provided and the undemocratic way in which it is run. It is this lack of credibility that the independent review must address. Over the next year, teaching staff in FE will become the only educators in England required to hold compulsory membership of a professional body.

However, the IfL is not the only organisation that needs proper scrutiny when it comes to CPD. Employers also have to look at their role in their staff's development. Half of staff polled in a recent UCU survey said that their employer did not meet its responsibilities when it came to CPD.

We asked members what they would want from an organisation like the IfL if one is to exist. Lobbying for greater access to CPD and professional recognition both ranked highly, but only a third were interested in professional regulation.

The IfL does not meet the basic standards of accountability, openness and democracy expected from a professional body created by statute. A member recently sent me an email conversation that they had had with the IfL. The member asked to see the full results of the advisory council elections. The institute said that it was not its "practice to release voting data". The member asked if they could just have the turnout figures, but again the IfL said no. This is not behaviour that befits a membership organisation, particularly one that charges a compulsory subscription fee.

No new body, however it is constituted and whatever services it provides, will survive unless it has democratic and transparent governance structures and is accountable to its members.

Sally Hunt is general secretary of the University and College Union.

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