While colleges across the country have announced hundreds of redundancies in recent months, this week there was a rare piece of good news for FE employees: public sector union Unison revealed that 58 per cent of colleges have agreed to pay all employees the living wage.
This means that about 1,000 workers have seen their pay rise to the living wage of #163;8.30 an hour in London and #163;7.20 in the rest of the UK. These figures have been calculated by the Centre for Research in Social Policy as being the minimum income necessary for a worker to meet their basic needs, and are significantly higher than the minimum wage that employers are legally obliged to offer - currently #163;6.19 an hour for over-21s.
Jon Richards, Unison's head of education, told TES that one in five of the colleges that had signed up to its living wage campaign had handed pay rises to their lowest-paid employees as a result. The campaign has been strongly supported by Labour MP David Miliband and the National Union of Students.
This week it was also announced that the living wage is to be increased by 25p an hour because of the increase in living costs over the past 12 months.
"The new rates will help families to make ends meet at a time when the costs of basics such as food and fuel have been rising," said Unison general secretary Dave Prentis. "The challenge now is to close the gap between the national minimum wage and the living wage.
"Through the work of just our FE campaign alone, more than 1,000 workers and their families have been pulled out of the misery that is poverty pay. This can change lives. For some parents it means they don't have to take a second job and will have more time to spend with their children."
Emma Mason, director of employment policy and services at the Association of Colleges, welcomed the "positive and consultative approach" taken by Mr Miliband and the union, but warned that tight budgets meant not all colleges would be able to increase their wage bill.
"We are pleased that some colleges are able to afford to pay the living wage and have received positive feedback from them about the effect it has had," she said. "However, colleges, like all of the public sector, are managing significant reductions in their funding and some are unable at this time to pay the living wage."
Marie Gilluley, principal of Bolton College, gave her backing to the campaign. "For Bolton College, the commitment to paying our lowest-paid staff a living wage is one way that we can engage with our staff and express how we value the work they undertake in support of our learners," she said. "As an employer, we also see this commitment as positive employee engagement and believe that this will have a positive impact on morale, customer service and turnover levels."
Fran Massey, a cleaner at The Manchester College, was one of the employees who received a pay rise as a result of the living wage campaign. "It's made it easier as a family," she said, adding: "When you get home from work you can relax."
Unison is now turning its attention to the 42 per cent of colleges that have not yet signed up. But with funding in many colleges already stretched to the limit, the union has a tough task ahead if it is to persuade them to get on board.