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They're closer but there's still quite a hill to climb

College unions and Government ministers are finding common ground in the great pay dispute. Francis Beckett reports on the current state of play.

THREE years ago the Government and the college trade unions were so far apart on pay that it looked briefly as though the days of permanent conflict were with us again.

They are now moving at speed towards a common vision of how further education lecturers' pay should be administered.

Both sides accept the current system is chaotic, complicated and unfair. Only the question of performance-related pay still divides them, but they are beginning to realise that a resolution which enables both sides to claim victory is not beyond the combined wit of lifelong learning minister Malcolm Wicks and Paul Mackney, general secretary of lecturers' union Natfhe.

Indeed, the unions' and employers' organisations for sixth-form college lecturers agreed a PRP deal last week, offering staff near the top of the pay scale the chance to apply for the pound;2,000 threshold increase currently available to school teachers. General and specialist FE colleges unveiled their proposals this week.

The minister met the Association of Colleges and the Further Education Funding Council before Christmas to start the process of divvying up the extra pound;50 million the Government has allocated to pay this year, the pound;100m for next year, and the unspecified larger sums after that.

The AOC is treading softly on the longer-term question of pay negotiations. Even in the hectic few days after the meeting, when the minister was condemning colleges which failed to pay the national increase and NATFHE was threatening legal action, the AOC was cautious.

It had issued a consultation document to colleges, establishing some "basic principles". The pay system should apply equally to full and part-time staff and be based on equal pay for work of equal value. The nearest it got to addressing PRP was to outline a scheme under which lecturers might get extra payments for things such as qualifications, effectiveness and professional development.

The Government and unions agree it is shameful that some of the colleges have still not paid the national increase negotiated last year. They also agree that the pay is far too low. Even those lecturers who did receive the full increase earn, on AOC figures, between 10 and 35 per cent less than school teachers.

On this, the AOC is between a rock and a hard place since some of its prominent member colleges are non-payers. In a press statement last week, the Association said: "What we see here is colleges acting with due and proper regard for their students' provision and staff's security. Many are waiting until the full financial facts are known."

All parties agree, oo, that something has to be done about part-time lecturers, especially now that an inspection report has shown lessons given by them are less effective. There are at least 70,000 part-time lecturers. The challenge is to make their lessons more effective.

Part-timers should have access to the same training and professional development opportunities as full-timers. They should also be available outside their formal contact hours to help students and meet colleagues.

Mackney says that, for every contact hour, each part-time lecturer should be hired for an extra half-hour to make sure the commitment to non-teaching duties is built in.

Another area of consensus is career structure. "We need to give people hope that there is a career in FE," said Mackney. "At the moment it's a revolving door."

Wicks put it differently: "I'm always surprised, when I visit a college and meet senior staff, that I'm meeting the director of finance, the marketing manager, but not anyone who is an academic. We have got to enable the committed and talented FE teacher to be paid properly and to get proper recognition and status."

For the same reason, they both want to see rewards for qualifications, a single pay spine for everyone in colleges, and more transparency.

"People should be placed on scales according to their jobs," said Mackney. "The principals should be paid according to the size of the college rather than the composition of the remuneration committee."

It is likely the Government will want to look at principals' salaries with a view to avoiding a repeat of some of the sector's scandals in recent years about perks and fat-cat salaries.

There is even some common ground over the Government mantra about "something for something".

FEFC figures confirm a 35 per cent increase in student numbers, accompanied by a 35 per cent decrease in unit costs since incorporation in 1993. Wicks these days sounds a little uncomfortable with the phrase, and Mackney says that Wicks "realises that lecturers have had an awful time. He's had a huge postbag in his own Croydon constituency from lecturers at Croydon College".

Once national criteria are agreed for releasing the extra money, each college will have to produce a pay policy. They will no longer be able to offer excuses for non-payment.

One prominent college which delayed payment was South East Derbyshire College, where principal Mick Brown offered his staff 3 per cent, payable in two instalments - conditional on student numbers being met and retained. Last time the college did this, the staff never got the second instalment.

Until last year, ministers would have condoned such methods. So Malcolm Wicks's condemnation in December marked a turning point.

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