At least 10 further education colleges are set to ditch traditional methods of hiring part-time lecturers and support a private recruitment agency.
Education Lecturing Services, a Nottingham-based company headed by Geoff Lennox, a former chief education officer in Derbyshire, is to open a Scottish office in Stirling and will begin supplying staff by September. It is being advised by the principals and personnel managers of 10 colleges.
NATFE, the further education lecturers' union in England and Wales, has attacked the company for undermining trade union rights and conditions. Sue Berryman, negotiating officer for FE colleges, warned: "They are largely used to circumvent statutory employment rights that part-timers have gained. This is used to get college lecturers on the cheap and we consider that those lecturers who choose to work or have to work part-time should get the same terms of conditions as full-time lecturers."
Richard Eve, director of ELS client services and a former NATFE official, denies that rates will be undercut. "The odd college which has tried to cut rates has found it enormously difficult to recruit," Mr Eve said.
The company currently deals with 50,000 lecturers in 108 colleges in England and Wales, 25 per cent of the total, and is being backed by Scottish employers. John Sellars, chief executive of the Association of Scottish Colleges, said: "I have been impressed by the professionalism and quality of services ELS provides colleges on a tailor-made and individual basis."
The company is likely to set up office close to the ASC and the Scottish Further Education Unit in Stirling, which is to be opened next week by Michael Forsyth, the local MP and Scottish Secretary.
Mr Eve said ELS had been approached by Scottish colleges and in turn had asked them to form a consultative group. The company, which Mr Eve said ploughs back surpluses into FE, has written to the Scottish unions seeking a meeting. "We have nothing to hide at all and we are happy to discuss proposals. Clearly, we do not want to appear to be doing something by stealth," he said.
The company believes it can cut administrative costs and offer more flexible services. All ELS part-timers would be self-employed and monitored and paid by the company, not colleges. Lecturers who wanted part-time work would register with ELS and be placed on a computer database that links with the colleges' network.
The company maintains that lecturers receive statutory sick pay and maternity pay. NATFE, however, argues that ELS was set up after the Government was forced to amend rights for part-time workers last year. College managers feared the need to treat part-timers on a par with core staff, NATFE alleges. A handful of colleges had trouble with local union branches after managers instructed part-timers to transfer to ELS.
The union contends that self-employed part-timers contracted to ELS do not share the employment rights of existing college staff. They have no pension scheme and do not benefit from local agreements which are better than the statutory minimum, it says.