Widespread industrial action could be on the way in the FE sector after the University and College Union (UCU) warned that mass redundancies have led to increased workloads and rising stress levels for college lecturers.
In recent months, UCU members have taken strike action at several colleges that are looking to implement redundancies or significant changes to lecturers' working conditions, including Barnfield, Gateshead and K colleges.
Barry Lovejoy, the union's head of FE, told TES that it was preparing for a broader campaign to protect the working conditions of members across the country. He has written to all colleges to remind them of procedures for altering working hours agreed by the FE unions and the Association of Colleges (AoC).
If any institutions fail to adopt the agreement by the end of the year, UCU insists it is prepared to "pursue the issue vigorously if necessary". Mr Lovejoy said the union would look to open a trade dispute with colleges failing to sign up, which could potentially lead to industrial action, initially short of a full strike, being held across the country.
The move follows the start of a joint campaign of non-strike action in schools by members of the NUT and NASUWT teaching unions in order to defend members' working conditions.
"Funding has dropped over the past two or three years, resulting in colleges trying to get the same work, or in some cases more work, out of fewer people," Mr Lovejoy said.
In his letter to principals, he writes: "Our members frequently identify increasing workloads as one of the most significant issues affecting their working lives and their ability to deliver a high-quality service to students.
"Our survey research continues to indicate that high workloads are a key factor behind increasing levels of stress among the FE workforce. I am sure you will agree that in the context of stringent financial constraints on colleges, unless adequate safeguards are put in place, there is a risk that pressures on workload will increase to levels that may seriously jeopardise quality and the health and well-being of staff."
A recent UCU survey, seen by TES, reported that stress levels among college lecturers have increased since 2008. Even in the college with the highest average level of well-being, UCU found that stress levels were significantly worse than the national average for all professions recorded by the Health and Safety Executive in 2008.
In 14 colleges, more than a third of UCU members surveyed said that they worked 50-plus hours a week; at Hertford Regional College, half of the employees surveyed said they worked 50 hours or more.
"We are looking to engage local reps or staff to identify problems with workload and identify a meaningful system to alleviate the pressure," Mr Lovejoy said.
The issue of increasing workloads could mark UCU's first foray into national industrial action in the FE sector since the pensions strike in November 2011. Despite pressure from some members for further action, a proposed national strike over pensions in conjunction with the NUT in March was eventually held only in London.
Despite rejecting the AoC's latest pay offer of a 0.7 per cent rise, UCU last month decided against taking strike action on this issue.
Emma Mason, the AoC's director of employment policy, said: "It is for each college to determine whether or not to adopt (the national joint agreement) . Many colleges will already have in place effective policies for the management of health and safety at work, including working hours, and the recommendations within the joint agreement reinforce the practices already undertaken.
"It is surprising that national industrial action is being considered over this issue since it will be a matter for local discussion depending on the particular circumstances of each individual college."
Photo: At Barnfield College in Luton, UCU members have taken strike action over a proposed increase to their working hours. Photo credit: Kieron Hillhouse
Original headline: UCU snaps over stress levels as it warms up for industrial action