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Union predicts wave of strikes

College employers shrugged off escalating industrial action among lecturers this week, and insisted that any extra cash for colleges would not be used to buy off striking staff.

Union leaders have predicted a wave of strikes if colleges are not saved from having to impose staff cuts. The lecturers' union, NATFHE, is already involved in 12 disputes at further education colleges, mainly opposing cuts and restructuring packages. But leaders warned more could follow if pressure on college finances do not ease.

The union threatens to be a thorn in the side of ministers; Labour has promised a new national bargaining framework for lecturers and an end to localised unrest and NATFHE wants the party to deliver.

The issue is a pressing one for ministers, with a bitter all-out strike at Southwark College, south London, entering its fourth week, and staff at neighbouring Kingsway launching another round of strikes with a one-day action this week.

Anger has focused on cuts and redundancies, a sensitive issue for the Government as it tries to expand opportunities through its Welfare to Work programme.

The Association of Colleges has demanded #163;39 million from the new government to prevent cuts imposed in next year's college settlement - a demand echoed by the NATFHE leadership.

But Roger Ward, AOC chief executive, was dismissive of the union action and insisted extra cash should not simply be swallowed up by pay claims.

He said: "I don't think it's going to get any worse, but I don't see any indication that it's going to get any better, and that the union is going to recognise the reality of the situation colleges are in. Everybody else is moving forward but it seems NATFHE is returning to the 1960s.

"The AOC is extremely anxious to work with the spirit of the new Government and we want to co-operate with them. All the signals they have been making are encouraging and what we need to do is sit down and look at the detail of how we help David Blunkett reach the targets he has set.

"We happen to think the best way forward is to try and find some limited sum of money to put into colleges. But that sum of money is not intended to solve strikes because the vast majority of staff in colleges are working towards our objectives.

"We are not going to make exceptions for a handful of NATFHE branches who want to strike against students, colleges and now the Labour government."

lRedundant lecturers at a Hampshire FE college have been forced to wait weeks for their severance pay.

Several lecturers were supposed to have received five-figure sums last month as part of Cricklade College's financial reorganisat ion.

The college in Andover was suffering severe cash flow problems as Government cutbacks form a pincer with its recent ambitions expansion.

Cricklade is set for further problems with the Further Education Funding Council, which has warned it will claw cash back because the college has failed to meet targets for student intake.

An FEFC spokeswoman said: "The college has not met its funding target. We are talking about the possibilit y for clawback. Most colleges are under some degree of financial pressure. But Cricklade does have quite specific difficulties."

Liz Blakemore, college vice-principal, said: "In the short term the college would have to meet these exceptional payments from its existing budget. Obviously it has been necessary to raise a substantial level of cash in a very short space of time. The college has now succeeded in this and the appropriate payments will be made to all staff who left at the end of last term."

lIndustrial action at troubled Stoke-on-Trent College has been averted after lecturers balloted by NATFHE agreed by four-to-one a new contract with 24 hours' maximum teaching, writes Ian Nash.

But 44 job losses still loom as the college grapples with an #163;8 million deficit (see below). So far, only 10 lecturers have volunteered for redundancy and the union has sought a stay of execution and asked management to seek FEFC support for an improved redundancy offer.

The settlement will be seen as a major breakthrough for the new principal,Graham Moore, who took over running the college last week. He agreed that a consultancy council representing all the staff would negotiate any further changes.

A similar contract is hoped for at Bournville in Birmingham, where most colleges have local agreements fixing a maximum teaching week of 23-24 hours.

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