I know what further education can achieve. I screwed up at school and worked various jobs until I tried evening classes at the local college. I didn’t have much confidence when I started and doubted my ability to even finish the courses, let alone take the exams.
But I never looked back. What still stands out for me is the diversity of the group who studied with me compared with school, and the support I received from my teachers. It is disgraceful that chances like this are much harder to come by now.
Over the past 15 years, I have met many education ministers. While most talk a good game about the importance of FE, they have proved unable to secure more funding for a sector too often considered to be “for other people” by the public school and Oxbridge-educated people who dominate politics today.
This experience tells us that we will have to fight for whatever we do get in the upcoming Spending Review.
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That is why UCU’s broader campaigning is so important. One reason why I commissioned the FE Transforms project was that I wanted to show that, despite everything thrown at them, teachers in FE, prisons and adult education are still changing lives today.
The evidence base produced by Vicky Duckworth and Rob Smith for UCU has reached politicians in a way that conventional campaigns cannot – even briefly uniting Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and then Tory minister Robert Halfon in their praise for the stories the project tells about FE’s life-changing potential.
The impact of the cumulative cuts in funding since 2010 is grim. The £7,000 pay gap between school teachers and FE teachers, increasing casualisation and rising workloads are all primarily a function of the government’s refusal to properly fund FE.
I say ‘primarily’ because, as I have argued elsewhere, colleges can and should do more even in the current tough times.
On the issue of what the union can do to improve pay and conditions, my own opinion is that UCU’s further education committee (FEC) is dealing with the dreadful funding situation with tactical flexibility and skill.
There is broad agreement within our FE membership that the union should continue to push for a decent national pay offer (FE in Wales shows the continued value of national bargaining, where employers will play ball and governments will fund properly), but also to seek gains wherever we can locally, too.
This strategy is what has produced the inspirational strikes by UCU branches in recent months, the fantastic CCCG group pay offer and significant progress in other colleges.
In some parts of the country, UCU’s action has brought employers to the table that have previously offered little for more than a decade.
As general secretary, I would work with the FEC to develop a strategy that takes the union’s campaign to the next level.
Strong branches are the key to effective bargaining so we need a serious investment in increasing branch capacity, giving our reps the skills to bargain, organise, campaign, get the vote out and challenge shortcomings in governance where they occur.
We need a strong, confident centre, too, communicating effectively with members and supporting the work of branches. I believe my work, for example, in providing the central organisation and support for the USS strikes in higher education shows that I know how to deliver on this kind of plan.
The union needs to involve members more – especially if we want them to support us in action ballots. I was secretary to the union’s commission for effective industrial action, which called for a strategy “characterised by long-term planning, union-wide consultation to establish issues that are important to members, a prioritisation of resources and a gradual mobilisation running up to ballot”.
That is exactly what we need in FE and, for that matter, higher education – an agreed plan that everyone has signed up to.
A distinctive voice
We must also ensure we continue to develop a distinctive voice for all sections of the FE workforce.
I am delighted that Brian Hamilton and Mel Stouph, our national representatives for prison and adult education, see me as the best candidate to represent their members’ interests.
I sit on Labour’s Lifelong Learning Commission and relish the chance to influence the FE policies of what I hope will be our next government. I want to ensure that people today get the same or better chances that I and millions of others got 30 years ago – and to make sure it is understood by the commission that a positive learning environment can only be created by properly supporting the staff who provide the education.
Everyone says they love FE, but the issue is to change things for the people who work in the system and the people who rely on it. As general secretary, I would hope to play my part in that.
Matt Waddup is national head of policy and campaigns at the University and College Union. He is standing in the election for the union's next general secretary