As lecturers hold their first national strike for 10 years, Steve Hook takes an overview of the background to the dispute.
TUESDAY'S strike by members of the lecturers' union NATFHE was described as "premature" by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, although many of those who stood on the picket lines would argue that it has in fact been eight years in the making.
The pay drift - which has seen lecturers fall so far behind their school colleagues - has been taking place since colleges were taken away from local education authority control with incorporation in 1993.
But lecturers' sense of frustration was heightened recently when the Association of Colleges came to the negotiating table with an offer of 3 per cent. The offer was sheepishly put forward by the AOC as an opening position which nobody seriously expected to break the deadlock.
With schoolteachers having been awarded 3.7 per cent, the lecturers' dream of parity with their pre-16 colleagues seemed even more distant.
NATFHE general secretary Paul Mackney estimates the difference between school and FE college pay at between 7 and 10 per cent. He says the 1.7 per cent recently allocated for lecturers under the teachers' pay initiative (TPI) won't go far enough.
Education Secretary David Blunkett insists TPI is being adequately-funded but, like annual salary increases, the way the cash is distributed - probably in June or July - is subject to local interpretation. Another factor which is giving the lecturers the sensation of attempting to walk up a down-escalator is the non-binding nature of annual pay awards, even when they have been agreed as a result of protracted negotiations.
The AOC, while characterised as the voice of employers at the negotiating table, is in fact no such thing. Whatever settlement is reached, the chances are that some colleges will refuse to implement the increase. This is why disputes about the non-payment of last year's settlement in some colleges have overlapped with the strike over this year's pay round.
There have been strikes across the country over the non-awardingof last year's 3.3 per cent, which has not been given out in about a quarter of colleges. Many more have failed to make the award in full.
With the Government responsible for policy, the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) in charge of funding, the AOC being effectively no more than an employers' advisory body where pay is concerned, and individual colleges able to do their own thing, there are simply too many people in the cockpit and nobody in a position to take the controls.
Added to this is the uncertainty dogging colleges as a result of the mind-boggling funding formula.
Labour stands accused by the union of spending money on gimmicks instead of the core funding of colleges which would make pay increases affordable at grass-roots level. But essentially this dispute is the result of the way the sector is structured more than the attitude of one Government.
Ironically, while the plight of lecturers gets worse, the FE sector appears ever-more successful in business terms. Figures published by the Further Education Funding Council shortly before its role was taken over by the LSC this year show a 35 per cent increase in student numbers and a 35 per cent decrease in unit costs since incorporation.
Pay is by far the biggest overhead on colleges' revenue budgets, and lecturers would say this apparent "efficiency" is in large part paid for by cash which should be reaching their wage packets.
BLACKPOOL MISSED OUT
While the lecturers' union NATFHE made much of this being its first national strike in 10 years, it is not the first time the union has attempted a national walk-out.
In 1994 a judge, albeit grudgingly, ruled it would be unlawful for lecturers at Blackpool and the Fylde college to strike. The legal technicality on which the college challenged the action was that the union failed to provide a detailed list of those who were balloted for action.
This set a legal precedent which applied to all colleges. With one legal oversight, the union had saved the Conservative administration the embarrassment of a strike just one year into incorporation.