We've broken free from the IfL - but what now?

5th August 2011 at 01:00

No doubt can now exist about FE lecturers' attitude towards the professional body that was supposed to represent them. Last week, members of the University and College Union (UCU) voted overwhelmingly to boycott the Institute for Learning (IfL). Almost 90 per cent of those who voted backed industrial action after originally rejecting plans that would have left them with an annual bill of pound;38 for IfL membership.

The result means we enter uncharted territory in terms of the action members will be asked to undertake. But what is clear is that the IfL is not fit for purpose and does not enjoy the confidence of its members.

We believe members appreciated the efforts of UCU's negotiators to win concessions (the original fee was to be pound;68), but it is clear that the IfL has a major credibility problem across the sector.

The reaction to a compulsory membership fee was unprecedented. Within days of the announcement in February, more than 5,000 had signed UCU's petition. Despite running the ballot being right at the end of the academic year, the turnout exceeded recent national votes on pensions and pay.

Some may take issue with members who balk at a fee of pound;38, but this comes at a time when FE lecturers' income is under severe pressure. A real-terms pay cut last year and the prospect of increased pension contributions mean this latest measure has been viewed by many as a step too far.

A common complaint from those who got in touch during the ballot process was that the IfL did nothing to support members' professional development and it could not justify any charge for its services. As one told me: "The IfL offers little, if anything, to professionals like me. I teach science and I couldn't find anything relevant to my field."

The IfL is simply not up to scratch; indeed, it says much for the popularity of the organisation that when UCU members were surveyed on its effectiveness in February, only 19.7 per cent thought it was fulfilling its role as a professional body.

Following the axing of the General Teaching Council for England, it seems odd and unfair that FE staff will be forced to join a professional body and pay for a privilege that few of them want. Many members have questioned how the IfL survived the Government's bonfire of the quangos.

Before joining the IfL membership was compulsory, membership peaked at around 1,000. It now has 200,000 members and says it prides itself on being member-led. The IfL must show its member-led credentials by listening to those members.

The decision to boycott the IfL has not been taken lightly. In the weeks and months ahead it is essential that, instead of threatening to ban classroom members who do not renew their membership, the IfL should look at why it is so unpopular with FE professionals.

Following the decision by UCU members to reject plans for a pound;38 fee and their clear rejection of the IfL, the union will now make preparations for a boycott.

While I am grateful to FE minister John Hayes for trying to resolve the dispute, and to UCU's negotiators for their efforts to win concessions, this is the only way ahead.

There is little doubt that college employers' failure to offer any contribution towards fees was a factor in the ballot result, but this does not change the underlying problems that exist with the IfL.

As my postbag makes clear, the institution is clearly not valued by staff working in colleges, adult education centres and prisons. To be an effective professional body you must enjoy the confidence of the majority of practitioners - something the IFL clearly does not.

Sally Hunt is general secretary of the University and College Union.

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