Talks begin to break strike deadlock

25th September 2009 at 01:00
Arbitration only option for strife-torn Tower Hamlets College as dispute over plans to cut staff costs by pound;1.9m rages on

When staff at Tower Hamlets College in east London began continuous strike action last month, it became further education's bitterest industrial dispute for half a decade.

Lecturers have only called indefinite walk-outs four times in recent history, with the longest at Southwark College over 10 weeks in 1997.

As the University and College Union (UCU) this week headed to the arbitration service Acas to try to resolve the deadlock, how did industrial relations get so bad?

Lecturers and union representatives said Tower Hamlets always had a strong union branch, good terms and conditions and a positive relationship with senior managers. But the college had also gone through a period of unstable leadership, with five principals in just five years.

Michael Farley, who became principal in March this year, acknowledges that the pound;1.9 million savings on staff costs he believes are necessary represented a major upheaval for staff.

"The college had never made anybody compulsorily redundant before," he said.

When he arrived, Mr Farley said his first concern was to appoint a vice- principal for curriculum to work on improvements in teaching. But he said he also had to make tough choices because the college had missed its target for 16-18 recruitment and faced losing funding.

"We didn't expect to be welcomed with open arms," Mr Farley said. "We had a funding reduction from the Learning and Skills Council in the number of students we were contracted for."

The financial position also fuelled the strikers' anger, however. Tower Hamlets College has reserves of about pound;6 million and Mr Farley's plan would mean generating a surplus of pound;283,000 in a year - money he says is needed to invest in new facilities, such as its new pound;400,000 suite for creative studies.

But lecturers with colleagues losing their jobs were not persuaded - banners on the picket line read: "13 teachers sacked, but THC profits."

With about 30 jobs having already gone through voluntary redundancy or staff leaving, the union argues that keeping the remaining jobs would cost less than pound;300,000, or roughly the same as the surplus the college is expecting.

The loss of places for English for speakers of other languages (Esol) was also an emotive topic for a college that prided itself on serving its multi-ethnic community, although successful appeals by staff targeted for redundancy have saved places for hundreds of students.

Alison Lord, UCU branch chairwoman at the Poplar site, said: "We recognise there are cuts to funding. But it's the manner in which they've been made, the extent, the time-frame and the lack of a relationship between senior management and the community it's supposed to serve."

These factors combined to make Tower Hamlets College something of a cause celebre for the union. Members raised pound;22,000 for the strike fund in just a few days and strikers are receiving pound;50 a day from UCU in place of their lost wages.

Senior management believes the union branch took a confrontational attitude from the start. Before the consultation document had been issued, Mr Farley said he opened talks with the union.

"I wanted to make sure I had a good dialogue with the union about the lecturers' thoughts," he said. "But I received a notice from UCU that said unless you give us a guarantee that there will be no compulsory redundancies and no change to our terms and conditions, we will enter into a trade dispute with you."

On the union side, staff said they wanted to address rumours of job cuts, and criticised management for refusing to extend consultation.

The latest figures from the college indicate that more than 130 of 180 teaching staff were on strike, meaning that a huge swathe of the timetable needed covering; managers with teaching qualifications pitched in and students were sometimes asked to study on their own.

Mr Farley said: "Teaching has started and students are getting a learning experience."

Catch-up classes will be held once staff are back at work, he added.

Students taking breaks outside the campus tended to blame college management rather than the teachers, who they believed had their educational interests at heart.

Prithi Ummie, a 17-year-old in her second year of A-levels, said: "It's been really unstable. You come in for a lesson, but you find it's either a substitute teacher or there's no one there. It's their bosses' fault - lecturers want to be teaching."

Barry Lovejoy, UCU's head of further education, suggested the strike could have been avoided.

"If they had suspended the formal notices of redundancy and given us some time to work out alternatives, it might not have had to happen," he said. "Unfortunately, the college didn't take up our offer."

But Mr Farley, still dealing with the fallout from the strike, said he had not had the chance to think about whether negotiations could have been handled differently.

"I will reflect on the lessons learned once staff are back in work and we are back to normal," he said.

Tale of the Tower

Tower Hamlets College has five campuses and 30 community venues around east London.

  • It has 2,565 full-time students, while 4,317 study part time.
  • 31 per cent of the students are under 19 years of age.
  • The largest ethnic group is Bangladeshi (47 per cent), followed by white British (12 per cent) and African (12 per cent). Some 78 different languages are spoken.
  • It serves England's third most deprived local authority.
  • 91 per cent of students are defined as "widening participation" learners, based on factors such as living in areas of deprivation and being asylum seekers.

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