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Union fears for safety;FE Focus

Rapid growth in student numbers has provoked new fears about health and safety in college workshops, according to Unison, the biggest public-service union.

Numbers funded by the Further Education Funding Council have risen from 930,000 in 199293 to 1.25 million in 19967. "But the price being paid in terms of financial instability and stress and demoralisation of staff is a high one," says the union.

Unison, which has 25,000 members in further education, said the growth had led to pressure on space becoming critical. There was also concern that technicians were now "unable to give students individual attention leading to a loss of quality, especially in some craft subjects".

The union examined the changes since colleges left local authority control and the impact of diminishing resources. It has used the results as the basis of its evidence to the parliamentary education and employment select committee.

It found the new funding regime had often had a greater effect upon support staff than on lecturers. As well as wear and tear on equipment there were increased demands on cleaning, caretaking and maintenance. Administrative pressures had risen because of greater enrolments and more exams.

Unison staff also commented on what they saw as new types of students. One felt less-able students were being enrolled onto courses they could not cope with and others commented on a growth in "more troublesome students" leading to extra pressures on security staff.

"Increasingly, demonstrators and technicians are being asked to 'instruct' students as pressures on lecturing staff have grown," the union says. NVQs and portfolio methods of assessment have also drawn support staff into the borderline between teaching and learning supervision. One respondent admitted: 'I now find I do work which I don't feel adequately qualified for and most support staff have taken on extra responsibilities'."

The bureaucracy generated by the funding methodology had left staff dealing with administration and paperwork feeling overwhelmed. "In particular there is a strong sense that the demands of the FEFC are both too rigid and pointless." One respondent said: "There seems to be no understanding by management of how long a task will take or the purpose of it - it always seems to be a waste of time."

The need to address poor pay was a matter of urgency if recruitment and retention of staff was not to be damaged. "Unison believes it is unhelpful to continue to hear reports of huge increases in remuneration for principals and other senior staff, while at the same time nationally agreed pay increases for support and lecturing staff are being withheld."

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