No sign of a resolution in college pay dispute

16th January 2015 at 00:00

The new year is only a fortnight old, and already that familiar feeling is starting to set in: it’s just possible that 2016 may actually not be able to live up to the enormous, and unrealistic, expectations with which it was welcomed on Hogmanay.

Excuses are already piling up: why, of course no one could possibly go out for a run in the rain, and, really, a leftover chocolate Santa is as good a breakfast as any other.

This is inevitable, of course. We all know that a new year does not automatically bring change. And it doesn’t automatically solve the problems of its predecessor.

National bargaining in the further education sector is one such problem: it hasn’t simply vanished. As colleges closed for the holidays in December, agreement on a pay deal seemed about as likely as snow on Christmas Day.

And although there is some hope that Unison members may accept the offer made by college management over the coming weeks, it still seems almost inescapable that the sector will face industrial action over the coming months.

All involved in the national bargaining process insist that they remain committed to it. However, no one is in any doubt that it will continue to be an enormous challenge.

The consequences of an absence of national bargaining from the sector and of localised industrial negotiations can be seen in the TESS exclusive on page 10.

There are vast differences in holiday entitlement across Scottish colleges. And pay, along with a number of other terms and conditions, varies just as widely.

Should support staff in one part of Scotland have more than 60 per cent more time off compared to their colleagues in others? Probably not.

Is it right for all unions to be ambitious for their members? Yes. Is it right for all college leaders to offer their staff the most efficient possible pay and conditions they can on behalf of their institutions and students? Probably.

The obvious way to square the circle is national pay and conditions bargaining. And we should most certainly aim to make progress towards it during 2016.

But, as with all our ambitions for the new year, a healthy dose of realism and honesty is required. For starters, the current conditions are, in many ways, a product of each college’s environment, and not just a case of one set of college managers being “nicer” than others.

Colleges do not operate in a vacuum. To attract high-quality staff, they have to compete in their local, or regional, labour market. And these markets vary enormously.

Also, undoubtedly, funding in the sector remains tight. Some even say that the current offer of a 1 per cent pay rise is already beyond what some colleges can afford.

Yet this offer is rather a long way away from what some at union level aspire to – harmonisation to the detriment of no one.

It is a lovely thought and in pay alone, it could mean a huge improvement for staff at some colleges.

But considering that a 1 per cent pay increase would raise a single college’s salary bill by hundreds of thousands, the cost to the sector as a whole would be staggering.

And while there are those who hold out hope that the government will foot the bill, the likelihood of ministers setting that precedent in the current financial climate is similar to that of me making it to the gym on a Sunday morning. When it’s raining. In January.

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