College staff and management must show a “willingness” to move national bargaining in the Scottish further education sector forward, the education secretary has said, as the first national industrial action in decades looks increasingly likely.
Angela Constance told TESS that although principals were concerned that budgets might not stretch to a pay rise, the government remained “committed to national bargaining”.
“It will bring common sense to further education pay,” she insisted.
Ms Constance added that the government considered this year to be “transitional” but there needed to be “a willingness on both sides to take steps to move things forward”.
Her comments came as the EIS-FELA union was due to meet in Glasgow today for a special conference, where members will decide whether to reject the final 1 per cent offer made by employers. If members follow the union’s recommendation to do so, the Scottish college sector could be heading towards its first national industrial action in decades.
Call for harmony
Ms Constance acknowledged that finances were clearly a challenge, but based on the views expressed by the sector she thought that this year’s pay offer was “manageable within existing budgets”.
She said: “Going forward, we expect colleges to continue to budget for pay rises, balancing these against other pressures as other organisations have to do, and work with all parties to find a consensus, compromising as necessary.
“We also expect the sector to start to consider harmonisation of terms and conditions. This work will need to be set in the context of wider workforce considerations that ensure the highest standards of learning and teaching in colleges across Scotland.”
But Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the EIS, said that national bargaining had so far proved disappointing.
He said: “The EIS-FELA executive has already unanimously rejected the management side’s unreasonable ‘final’ offer and today’s conference looks certain to deliver a similar damning verdict.
“It is profoundly disappointing that, in the first set of pay negotiations within the national bargaining framework, the management side has dragged discussions on for almost a year and then presented a final offer that would only compound issues of pay inequality throughout the sector.”
Mr Flanagan said it appeared “highly likely” that a move to ballot the membership on industrial action would follow.
Information from the union shows that in 2014, salaries for unpromoted lecturers in Scottish colleges varied between £26,528 and £39,086 – meaning that some teaching staff earned 47 per cent more than others, depending on which college they worked for. Two years previously, the disparity between the lowest and the highest paid job was just under £4,600 – £32,250 compared with £36,943.
College unions stress that national bargaining, introduced in the Post-16 Education (Scotland) Act 2013, was meant to help tackle these disparities.
‘Lack of coordination’
Support staff union Unison is also balloting members on pay. A spokesman for the union told TESS it was “deeply regrettable that the first year of national pay talks is headed for a collective dispute across Scotland”.
He added: “This is down to lack of coordination and financial planning by the sector, not the belligerence or inflexibility of the unions. If the minister is saying a fair settlement for all staff in FE is financially possible, then she must exercise some political influence over the process.”
College leaders have over the past few months repeatedly voiced concerns about the financial viability of a pay increase for all college staff.
Shona Struthers, chief executive of Colleges Scotland, said that her organisation was working with trade unions to reach an agreement “as quickly as possible”.
She added: “We would encourage the trade unions to get back round the table. They must realise that pay differentials cannot be addressed overnight, but we are committed to working constructively with them to ensure the long-term sustainability of Scotland’s colleges.”