A union is considering witholding students' assessment results from their colleges, in an escalation of a dispute over pay.
The EIS-FELA teaching union, which represents lecturers in Scotland’s colleges, had already held two days of strikes, and has two further days planned in March.
In its latest newsletter, the union reveals that it is now planning to ballot members for action short of strike action.
“We are now moving to escalation with a ballot for action short of a strike as well as the ongoing strike action," it states. "The proposed action will involve withholding assessment results – not from the students – but from management systems.”
The body representing college employers described the proposals as "wantonly playing with students’ life opportunities at a crucial time for them and their education".
Quick read: Striking lecturers' pay demands ‘unreasonable’
It added that such a move would have a “devastating impact on students’ chances of moving on to other courses at college or going to university to study, as the Scottish Qualifications Authority would not be able to externally verify the results and students would not receive certificates nor be able to graduate”.
Ready to negotiate
EIS-FELA president Pam Currie said the union had anticipated management coming back to the table on 7 February with a revised offer, ready to negotiate. “Instead, management simply read out a prepared statement indicating that there was no new offer,” she added.
“We have attempted to negotiate with management for over two years and our members have now been forced to take two days of strike action. We made it clear to management that if they failed to enter into meaningful negotiations, we would have no option but to escalate our action, and we are now preparing to do just that.”
While a deal to harmonise pay and protect core conditions was agreed in May 2017, a cost-of-living increase has not been. According to Colleges Scotland, colleges have offered an increase that would take the average pay increase from 9 per cent to 12.2 per cent – or an average cash increase of over £4,000 – but this has been rejected. The colleges argue that an improvement on that offer would not be affordable, but the union disputes that claim.
Cost-of-living pay dispute
Lecturers had not had a cost-of-living rise since April 2016, it stressed.
“Our escalation requires a further statutory ballot and we will launch that to coincide with our next day of industrial action on Wednesday 6 March," said Ms Currie. “The ballot will close before the spring break and, if required, action short of a strike could potentially commence as lecturers return from the holiday, alongside further strike action.
“Full details of the action will be announced with the launch of the ballot, but this will consist of a resulting boycott and withholding results from college systems. As with strike days, this will inevitably impact upon learners, and, as we have made clear, industrial action is a last resort.
"We remain hopeful that the employers' association will see sense and negotiate, and we would call upon the Scottish government to intervene to end this industrial action and deliver a fair cost-of-living rise before any further damage is done to our learners and to the sector as a whole.”
'Tight' college finances
John Gribben, director of employment services at employers' association Colleges Scotland, said colleges have now made a total of five pay offers which either increased or restructured the additional pay offer during negotiations. “However, finances are extremely tight, and colleges cannot afford to further increase the offer. It is our view that the EIS-FELA continues to make unaffordable pay demands,” he said.
He added that it was “worrying that the EIS-FELA is threatening to escalate strike action and planning to withhold assessment results from colleges”.
“This is an extremely serious development and reckless behaviour by the EIS-FELA, which is wantonly playing with students’ life opportunities at a crucial time for them and their education. Action which is intentionally designed to adversely impact students is not the behaviour you would expect of educational professionals.”
Mr Gribben added: “At the heart of this pay dispute is the EIS-FELA’s insistence in trying to separate the substantial pay rises lecturers are receiving from 2017-20 due to salary harmonisation from the colleges’ additional pay offer – what the EIS-FELA call a ‘cost-of-living’ offer – for the same three-year period. A pay rise is a pay rise irrespective of where it comes from. Our door remains open and we will continue to engage and negotiate with the EIS-FELA until an agreement is reached, but it must be within an affordable financial envelope. Anything more will put jobs, courses and students at risk.”