The new year in Scotland has begun on a familiar note with two colleges voting to take strike action over pay. Another 10 colleges have still to reach salary agreements for last year.
College Lecturers' Association members have backed strike calls at Clydebank and Reid Kerr colleges if negotiations collapse. The Clydebank vote was 95 to 23 in favour of a strike after management failed to make an offer, while Paisley voted 115 votes to 22 in response to a proposed 1 per cent rise.
Managements at both colleges continue to blame the financial restrictions imposed by the Government' s student-related funding system, on which the Scottish Office is currently holding consultations following a review.
Reid Kerr declined to comment publicly but the college faces a deficit that has to be cleared within three years. Student activity, measured by the number of hours of study, rose by 3.5 per cent last year but the Scottish Office grant went up by only 0.4 per cent, the equivalent of an extra #163;30,800.
The Paisley college also complains that it has contributed around #163;1 million over the past three years to the safety-net arrangements, which in the current financial year cushioned 11 colleges whose grant would otherwise have fallen by more than 6 per cent.
The Reid Kerr unions say their members have made a substantia l contribution towards easing the college's financial plight, with a 5. 7 per cent cut in staff costs between 1995-97. The management says, however, that student numbers have not increased this year.
Clydebank CLA echoes the anger felt at what lecturers regard as attempts to balance the books at the expense of jobs. "We have already massively increased our productivity and staff numbers have fallen by 6 per cent in the past year," Alan Ferguson, the union's branch secretary, says. "The feeling is that refusing to pay a straight cost of living increase is grossly unfair. Our members have given and given, and got nothing in return."
The "horrible reality" was that Clydebank would be facing major disruption from next week unless management changed its position, Mr Ferguson warned. The unions have been told that any pay rise would have to be financed through redundancies or increases in class contact from 21 to 24 hours a week. They are demanding a flat rate rise which would be the equivalent of an extra 5 per cent on point 12 of the lecturers' salary scale.
Stuart Niven, chairman of the Clydebank College board, said he was "extremely disappointed and saddened" by the vote. A statement pointed out that the college had already been forced to make savings of #163;750,000 this year to reduce its deficit and control borrowing, part of a five-year recovery plan agreed with the Scottish Office.