Colleges must step out of the shadows for fair pay

15th September 2017 at 00:00
The decline in real wages cannot continue if we are to attract and retain college staff, who could help boost workers’ technical skills, writes Andrew Harden

Who would put up with a £32,000 pay cut? That’s how much an average college chief executive or principal would have lost since 2009, if they were subject to the same decline in real wages as other college staff.

Even on the generous remuneration our college leaders receive, a pay cut of 23.6 per cent would hurt. Imagine how much more it hurts if £32,000 is what you were being paid to begin with.

On Tuesday, representatives from the Association of Colleges (AoC) will meet with the FE sector’s trade unions for a second time this year to discuss the unions’ pay and conditions claim for 2017-18.

At the last meeting in May, the AoC representatives said that they had no mandate from their members to make an offer on pay.

Last week, I wrote to college leaders asking them to give the AoC a clear mandate ahead of Tuesday’s meeting to make an offer on pay that does not see staff pay fall even further behind.

At an AoC reception before the summer break, I was pleased to hear its chief executive David Hughes speak so powerfully about the great work that staff do in our colleges. David is not alone in recognising the contribution staff make, or how lost the sector would be without their commitment and drive.

Speak to anyone who teaches in FE and it quickly becomes clear that the thing that first attracted them was the difference they felt they could make for their learners. As a sector, though, we have a problem when people like that – people who want so much to teach in FE – feel they can no longer afford to.

The AoC’s college workforce survey, released in March, found that 95 per cent of colleges said they had difficulty filling posts during 2015-16. The top three most difficult-to-fill posts were all in teaching, which was also the case in the previous two surveys.

The report also highlighted the problem of low pay. Only one in 20 colleges said that they did not have difficulty recruiting and two-thirds cited low pay as a reason for recruitment difficulties.

Put simply, the holding back of staff pay cannot continue and we expect the AoC to come to the table on Tuesday with an offer that reverses the recent trend of below inflation pay increases and even pay freezes.

We are clear that further cuts in real pay must not continue. As I explained in last week’s letter to principals (“Low pay is forcing college staff to quit, warns UCU”, Tes, 8 September), we are consulting our members in FE about their willingness to take industrial action if we feel the AoC does not make an acceptable offer.

FE is the answer

As a sector that has often found itself in the shadow of higher education – where the decision makers and their children study – I feel we find ourselves in a unique moment where FE is perhaps finally understood to be the solution to many of the country’s challenges.

A report from the Social Market Foundation in April found that, “although the FE sector faces a series of challenges over the next two decades, it can seize the opportunity to play an even greater role in helping people of all ages raise their skills and wages”.

It also explained how leaving the European Union could present a massive opportunity for the sector, arguing that boosting the technical skills of British workers, young and old, should be an urgent priority for politicians.

Meanwhile, the Social Mobility Commission’s chairman told a conference in July that “our future success in a globally competitive economy relies on using all of our country’s talent, not just some of it”.

There are consequences to the sector’s pay going backwards and they are well documented in the AoC’s surveys. FE has more reason than ever to be confident in its mission and its promise to the country.

This should be the time for the sector to stride out and confidently make clear the difference that it can make to address the challenges we face both now and in the post-Brexit years to come. We need leaders that are prepared to offer more than warm words to their staff, something we hope to see evidence of at Tuesday’s meeting.

Like so much in the world at the moment, it feels as if the future of FE sits in the balance. Let’s seize this moment together.

Andrew Harden is head of further education at the University and College Union

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