Radicals return to haunt the EIS

19th March 2004 at 00:00
The newly formed Further Education Lecturers' Association (FELA) is not yet free to rise, phoenix-like, from the ashes of its controversial predecessor, it seems.

For the embers of the College Lecturers' Association (CLA), placed on the pyre by its Educational Institute of Scotland parent body amid much heat and acrimony, are still flickering.

The FELA, which holds its inaugural conference in Edinburgh tomorrow (Saturday), is facing a formal investigation by the official trade union watchdog amid charges that the EIS has behaved in an "undemocratic" fashion.

And the election as its first president of Jim O'Donovan, the lecturer sacked by Glasgow Central College of Commerce who took his case to a tribunal and won, suggests that the born-again organisation may not be as free of turbulence as the EIS leadership had hoped. Mr O'Donovan was also president of the CLA.

The left-wing association, described by its more polite critics as "one of the last bastions of old-style, confrontational trade unionism", is now the sole representative of academic staff in Scotland's FE colleges, following the merger with the Scottish Further and Higher Education Association.

But the way in which it was established is being called into question.

James Higney of Coatbridge College, a former CLA president, has lodged a formal complaint with the certification officer for trade unions claiming that the EIS breached its own rules and those of the CLA.

The EIS states that it has acted lawfully, but the certification officer has taken the complaint seriously enough to arrange a formal hearing of the case. This is scheduled to take place in Edinburgh on April 29.

The complaint centres on discussions between the EIS and the Scottish Further and Higher Education Association last year, resulting in the SFHEA transferring its members to the EIS.

The institute maintains that to accommodate the transfer it was entitled to dissolve the CLA, which it has described as a "subsidiary" part of the EIS, without having to go through normal constitutional procedures.

Members of the CLA disagreed, insisting throughout what became a long-running constitutional wrangle that it was a "self-governing association" within the EIS and therefore had ultimate authority on FE matters.

The FE leadership complained that none of its members were involved in discussions that led up to the transfer of the SFHEA and said that the CLA was only informed it had taken place after the event. It also accused the EIS of imposing undemocratic "transitional arrangements".

Mr O'Donovan says that his decision to stand for the FELA post should not be taken as a sign that he accepts the way it was set up. "FELA is governed by a constitution which has not been approved by a single member of the CLA," he said. "Unsurprisingly, not only is it undemocratic, it contains many vagaries, impracticalities and contradictions."

At the time of the transfer the SFHEA had at most 600 members while the CLA had around 4,500. Yet under the transitional arrangements former SFHEA members will have the alternating reserved position of FELA president or vice-president for four years. During that time they will also have half of the places on the FELA executive reserved for them, as well as reserved places at the EIS's annual meeting.

Mr O'Donovan told The TES Scotland that there was clear evidence that the EIS intends to stifle democracy in FELA. An "interim arrangements committee" has been set up under the auspices of the powerful finance and general purposes committee of the EIS to oversee arrangements for the FELA conference.

The committee has ruled out of order a whole number of motions submitted by college branches, although this is not a unique experience for many.

Members of the old CLA have now set up a "campaign for union democracy" and leafleted the colleges in February as part of their election campaign for the FELA executive. The leaflet urged members to complain to Ronnie Smith, EIS general secretary, and to the certification officer. It urged members to vote for "pro-democracy candidates", several of whom were elected.

One of them will not be good news for EIS officials. James Higney of Coatbridge College, a former CLA president, takes an uncompromising view.

"A small clique of bureaucratic careerists has been hell-bent on dissolving a self-governing association of the EIS," Mr Higney said.

"They have little knowledge of what goes on in FE and if they are allowed to dominate the FELA executive they will inevitably do damage to the interests of staff in the colleges."

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