The contentious Trade Union Act 2016 came into force with the stated aim of protecting the public from “undemocratic industrial action”. As a result, strikes can only go ahead where there has been a ballot turnout of at least 50 per cent of eligible members – far higher than the 21.2 per cent achieved in the last national University and College Union strike ballot back in 2015.
But now, the biggest union for college teachers is planning a new approach to get around the law and stage a series of strikes. Its goal is simple: to pressure the Association of Colleges into increasing its pay offer for college staff.
While the lifting of the public sector pay cap means school teachers this year are expected to receive a larger pay rise than in recent years, the AoC has tabled a 1 per cent offer on behalf of its member colleges for 2017-18. The negotiations are non-binding, meaning each college is free to set its own pay rise.
The AoC’s offer, however, is significantly less than the union’s claim at the start of August: the Retail Price Index measure of inflation, plus 3 per cent – equating to 6.9 per cent, with a minimum uplift of £900 for the lowest-paid staff.
The UCU said that its members would be “extremely disappointed” at the AoC’s offer, which was “substantially below inflation and fails to address the years of pay suppression that further education staff have endured”.
In a bid to up the ante, UCU this week launched ballots for strike action in 12 colleges, from Sunderland to Sussex (see box, below right).
“You would only ballot if you could be absolutely sure you would reach the 50 per cent,” says Andrew Harden, the union’s head of FE. “You have to be very confident. This shouldn’t be taken by anyone as an indication that people in other colleges are happy – they are not.”
The union expects a strong vote in favour of strike action at these 12 colleges, he adds – and it hopes that other branches will join the dispute as it progresses.
Unable to make ends meet
Pay in the sector has reached a tipping point, with many teachers having opted to leave the sector because they are unable to make ends meet, Harden adds: “It has been agreed by everyone that pay is clearly a problem in FE. This is about the future of FE.”
The ballots opened on Tuesday, and will close on 12 February. Pay is the focal point of them all, with some also including local issues around working conditions.
At Sunderland College – one of the institutions where UCU members are being balloted – feelings are running high after staff were offered a 1 per cent rise.
This, the ballot papers states, is effectively “no pay rise at all” in the face of rising inflation – and comes “against a backdrop of approximately £225,000 being spent on consultants”.
The college’s recent merger with Hartlepool Sixth Form College, where staff remain better paid than their peers at Sunderland, hasn’t helped the mood.
Learning support teacher and UCU branch chair Kevin Lynch says staff morale is low. Some 78 per cent of branch members surveyed said they were prepared to go on strike.
“There are fewer people doing more work, we had no pay award for 2016-17 – which is in effect a pay cut – and we have been offered 1 per cent now,” Lynch adds. “Sunderland needs a good FE college as a community resource. We work very hard, and still we are not being paid the same as [school] teachers.” The college was unavailable for comment.
Staff at the Capital City College Group in London have been awarded a 1 per cent rise for the current academic year, in line with the AoC recommendation. But chief executive Andy Wilson acknowledges that it is a concern FE staff pay has fallen behind other sectors.
“We will continue to follow AoC recommendations so long as they are affordable, and to pay all staff at least the London Living Wage,” he says. “The corporation reviews its pay policy each year and awarded a small bonus where finances have allowed.”
College finance has suffered as a result of cuts in government funding. The most recent data from the Education and Skills Funding Agency shows the proportion of colleges making an operating loss has risen from 38 per cent in 2014-15 and 2015-16 to 48 per cent in 2016-17.
'Threat to the sector'
“Every college wants to attract and retain the best people, but it is clear that cuts to FE funding have disproportionately hit colleges, impacting directly on their ability to reward staff,” says AoC chief executive David Hughes. “We wish we were in a position to make a better recommendation, but current funding levels for colleges do not allow us to do so.”
He adds that the association is still committed to national negotiations – and plans to meet with the national joint forum to “look at joint funding campaigning activity to get the sector the investment it very much needs”.
The expected pay rise in schools would be a “threat to the sector”, UCU’s Harden adds, because it would put colleges at a disadvantage when it comes to recruitment.
Among the other FE unions there is a mixed picture. The NEU says members have “reluctantly” accepted the 1 per cent offer.
Unison says that its members rejected the offer, “but with responses being varied, the committee decided to proceed by seeking to purse disputes on pay on a local college basis in collaboration with sister unions”. Members of Unite accepted the offer. GMB was unavailable for comment.