The Association of Colleges and trade union officials will meet later this month to discuss the unions’ 2017-18 claim on pay and conditions. Both sides insist a well-rewarded workforce is crucial to the success of the sector, and acknowledge that negotiations will take place against a backdrop of continued tight finances and reported recruitment challenges for colleges.
But new figures from the University and College Union reveal the stark impact that relatively low pay increases have had on teaching staff in recent years.
In a letter sent to college principals today, Andrew Harden, head of further education at the UCU, says that public sector pay has now become “an issue of national discussion and one that those on all sides of politics accept needs to be addressed”.
“It is clear that staff in FE have suffered more than others in the public sector when it comes to keeping up with inflation. This cannot continue,” he adds.
The figures supplied to Tes by the UCU show that while the cost of living, expressed through the Retail Price Index (RPI) has increased by 27.6 per cent since 2009, pay in FE colleges has gone up by just 4 per cent over that time. This, the union says, means that FE staff have suffered a real-terms drop of 23.6 per cent in their pay.
Mr Harden tells Tes that for the most experienced lecturers, this represents around £8,000 in lost annual income. “People are actually making the kind of calls where they love what they do in FE, but they can’t afford to do it,” he says.
He points out that, in recent years, only a relatively small proportion of colleges have followed the recommendation that came out of pay negotiations between unions and the AoC, so teachers at those colleges could have fallen even further behind.
'We're struggling to recruit'
“We are reaching a point where everybody across the sector accepts this is an issue because we are struggling to recruit and retain the people that make FE work,” says Mr Harden.
According to the most recent workforce survey by the AoC, the top three reasons for recruitment difficulties across all college staff included staff “looking for more pay than college could offer”. The same survey said that the average annual salary for college lecturers was £30,182.
Justin Wynne, a lecturer at Sussex Coast College, says that “in the last three or four years, what you would consider normal for most people in the working world has become difficult for us in FE”. “Holidays, the number of presents under the Christmas tree – it is the little things,” he explains.
Mr Wynne says he loves his job, but could envisage the situation reaching “a critical point where I either have to get a second job stacking shelves to support my job, or find something else to do”.
And one lecturer from a London college tells Tes that pay has even affected crucial life decisions, including the choice to only have one child.
He adds: “I think what’s really exacerbated it is the pay for the managerial end of it has spiralled out of control, really, and I think it’s really noticeable. The head of this college is paid £250,000 a year, and that doesn’t even include his bonuses.”
Earlier this year, Tes reported that the number of colleges spending over £200,000 in a single year on salaries for their principals had risen by more than 50 per cent, from eight in 2014-15 to 13 in 2015-16.
David Hughes, chief executive of the AoC, says that his organisation shares the unions’ view that “a skilled and well-rewarded workforce is critical to the future success of FE”.
However, he adds: “It is clear that cuts to FE funding over the last decade have disproportionately hit colleges, impacting directly on their ability to retain and reward staff.
“Our ongoing discussions with the unions on behalf of the sector have been productive and we are all agreed that the government needs to address the funding shortfalls. I’m pleased that the unions want to work with us on that.”
He says that the AoC would “seek to make a recommendation that is affordable in a very tough funding environment.”