Watt staff stoke up a head of steam
Government ministers don't "do" protest rallies these days. So Ross Finnie, the Environment Minister, turning up to support a protest march and rally by staff at James Watt College in his Greenock backyard might be seen as an indication that things are serious.
Clearly, they are. Bill Wardle, the principal, whose four-year tenure has seen the heat of industrial friction stoked to record temperatures, is off on sick leave.
In his time, Scottish Funding Council figures show, the college has turned an operating surplus of pound;301,000 into a deficit of more than pound;2 million.
Two seasoned FE managers, Graham Clark and Jim Skinner, have been drafted in as acting principal and chairman of the board, respectively. Dr Clark is being hired for his "operational and management experience", Mr Skinner to help "shape the future strategic direction of the college".
Mr Finnie told the protesters last week that, in his 30 years as a councillor and MSP in the Inverclyde area, he could not recall an issue on which so many people had come to see him.
"If management loses the confidence of staff," he said, "that in itself is a sign of mismanagement."
The staff have passed a vote of no confidence in Professor Wardle five times, says the Further Education Lecturers' Association, which is part of the Educational Institute of Scotland.
Both the FELA and Unison, which represents the support staff, have embarked on strike action. The lecturers' union held a meeting last Thursday and decided to ask the EIS for permission to ballot its members on action over pay and conditions, pending the outcome of negotiations with management which were due to take place yesterday. Unison says 94 per cent of its members have already voted to support strike action on pay.
Lecturers had threatened strike action earlier this year in protest at what they claimed was the mismanagement of the college, which had led to restructuring plans that would have seen the axeing of 70 academic and support staff posts. But an interim agreement allowed negotiations to resume.
It was eventually proposed that lecturers' teaching time increase from 21 to 24 hours a week, to deal with increased student numbers, reduce the reliance on casual and temporary staff and introduce more flexibility in the use of staff. For this, pay would increase by pound;400 a year from April this year, to be followed by a 1.25 per cent rise in July 2007, three points would be removed from the bottom of the salary scale and an additional two weeks' holiday would be granted.
This offer was firmly rejected in September. Although only 67 per cent of the 400 FELA members at the college voted, 94 per cent of those said no.
"It was a resounding rejection," said Marian Healy, the further and higher education officer of the EIS. "But it was not so much a vote on the proposals as on the principal. Our members saw a yes vote as endorsing the actions of someone in whom they had already passed votes of no confidence."
The union says it has heard nothing from the college since.
The college management says it needs more flexibility in the use of lecturing staff who, it points out, are still the best paid in the FE sector. Lecturers at the top of the scale earned pound;32,851 last year, compared with a Scottish average of pound;29,896. The union says Professor Wardle and his team presided over the continuation of that position.
Although James Watt College invested heavily in expansion - notably its new campus in Kilwinning, North Ayrshire, and the modernised waterfront development in Greenock - Professor Wardle inherited these decisions.
The problem on his watch appears to have been the changing student demand for courses which, Professor Wardle said earlier this year, meant there were areas of the curriculum "where present staffing levels can no longer be sustained".
For Ms Healy, this is simply another indicator of mismanagement. "We accept there will be fluctuations in curriculum demand," she said, "but that requires management to work closely with their staff to ensure they can survive these peaks and troughs, reskilling or redeploying staff as necessary, so you don't end up forcing redundancies."
Ms Healy suggests that confrontation on this issue is a result of bad planning and lack of trust by management in the staff representatives.
The FELA sent a statement to all college principals in August, rejecting redundancies as a means of solving college deficits. It called for joint working on "skills auditing" to develop voluntary retraining opportunities for staff who are teaching subjects in decline, or redeployment opportunities into areas where demand is on the increase.
Ms Healy also believes the Scottish Funding Council, in its role of monitoring the financial security of colleges, was not robust enough in dealing with the college. "We have to ask: was it doing its job?" she says.
The council argues it cannot intervene regularly in the affairs of independent colleges, although its development directorate has been active in "assisting" colleges in difficulty, such as James Watt and Inverness.
But the message from the FELA awaiting Dr Clark when he took over as acting principal last week was: "We're not prepared to carry the can for previous mismanagement, in terms of job losses or worsening of our conditions."
Further education is proving to be testing for principals who come from higher education. Professor Wardle is the latest to have a rough ride. He came from York St John College, where he was depute principal. John Little, of Inverness College, who is also absent on sick leave, came from an HE post south of the border. Alex MacLennan had a short spell as principal of Ayr College after a stint as assistant principal at Paisley University. He is now principal at Bell College, another HE institution.