Wield the axe to excess and we'll all suffer

21st May 2010 at 01:00
Comment: Sally Hunt

At present we have unprecedented levels of unrest in further education. There are disputes or ballots for strike action at 20 colleges and little sign that the new politics we have entered, or the institutions themselves, have the answers required to sort the mess out.

An easy and lazy charge against the University and College Union (UCU) is that we are making things worse by threatening industrial action. No doubt the accusations of being greedy or unreasonable and failing to accept that we are all in this together will be added to the charge sheet. That simply is not fair.

As leading economist David Blanchflower said on the afternoon the Con-Lib coalition Government was formed, making cuts in the depths of a recession will see a surge in unemployment. The failure to properly fund further education has already left Britain with a rising number of young people not in employment, education or training - or Neets. Our benefits system will inevitably now be stretched by people who would benefit from being at college rather than on the dole.

However, at the time when they are needed most, colleges will be forced to turn people away. Students who do get a place may well find themselves being taught by staff on worse terms and conditions than they previously enjoyed and with a much greater workload.

What many people don't realise is that some colleges are using the funding crisis to try to implement different terms and conditions. We are not unreasonable and we do accept that difficult decisions will have to be made. What we do not, and will not, accept is colleges using the cuts to unnecessarily wield the knife or hold a gun to the heads of staff who fear for their livelihoods.

What we want is a sensible approach from colleges to work through those difficult decisions with us. It will always be the rogue employers that get the headlines, but there are countless examples where local branches and UCU staff have worked behind the scenes to thrash out a deal that avoids any disruption by the union or grandstanding from the college.

I would argue that it is in colleges' interests to work with us when they first realise there is going to be an issue. We are working with so many at the moment that we do have a bit of experience and expertise. Axeing staff or decimating their terms and conditions should never be at the forefront of colleges' minds when they have a problem.

There also needs to be much greater strategic planning from colleges and an avoidance of knee-jerk cuts to try to solve an immediate problem. There will be real long-term damage done if colleges do not act appropriately in the coming months. They will gain nothing from swingeing cuts now if down the line they cannot recover.

It is absolutely vital for the sector that we work together to defend our colleges and to give the largest amount of people the chance to access high-quality education. More work will get done behind the scenes than on the picket lines or in the pages of the local paper.

We want to work with colleges to defend and promote the sector, but there should never be any doubt that we will continue to defend our members' jobs and working conditions.

Sally Hunt, General secretary, University and College Union.

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