The dispute at Forth Valley College (FVC) over attempts to make lecturer posts redundant and replace them with over 20 "instructor" roles is the latest in a series of battles around the country over the use of qualified, professional lecturers in vocational subject areas.
At FVC, lecturers in hairdressing, care, construction and engineering have been invited to consider voluntary severance or to take instructor roles as the college seeks to save money by cutting their most valuable resource – lecturers.
Before the coronavirus shutdown, members of the EIS-FELA union had already responded with fury, declaring a dispute and winning a clear mandate to proceed toward industrial action after an indicative ballot. When the dispute was temporarily halted by the closure of the college, members were astonished to find the college management proceeding apace – even threatening to hold redundancy consultation meetings online. This raises huge concerns over staff wellbeing, particularly for those with pre-existing medical conditions, and would limit the ability of the EIS to provide support to members when they need it most.
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The fact that a global pandemic could not stop a college management hell-bent on "transformational change" highlights again the low regard that senior management have for the skills, qualifications, experience and expertise of their own teaching staff, particularly in vocational subjects.
Lecturers in these areas must not only demonstrate competence to the highest industry standards, backed by substantial "on-the-job" experience, but also the classroom skills to engage learners for whom classroom learning in school was an often-fraught experience.
An “instructor” is not a teacher or lecturer; an “instructor” instructs on specific aspects of a job. This may well be a valuable role in industry, where new-starts require to be trained on a specific piece of machinery or company policy, but it is a far narrower contribution than that of further education – of learning about your subject, of developing expertise, the ability to think critically, the ability to evaluate your work and that of others, and, above all, the opportunity to engage in education and in learning for learning’s own sake – not simply as a trained monkey.
The proposals class instructors as support staff rather than teaching staff – they can be paid substantially less than lecturers and will require only the assessor awards, with no opportunity to undertake a teaching qualification. Instructors will not benefit from lecturer terms and conditions and will have a minimum of 25 hours per week class contact in a 35-hour working week – leaving little to no time for preparation, marking or development. This will inevitably impact upon the quality of learning and teaching.
To suggest that vocational areas of the college curriculum can be hived off and delivery passed to instructors is inherently offensive. It harks back to the days of grammar schools and secondary moderns and reflects a barely disguised snobbery – that a second-class educational experience is “good enough” for the predominantly working-class students who engage on vocational programmes.
In fact, vocational programmes are the lifeblood of colleges and should be front and centre of our offer – they are often the most up-to-date, with the highest post-qualification employment rates and the biggest contribution to the local economy. While colleges may be ashamed of their brickies, their hairdressers and their mechanics, as lecturers we know that these colleagues are committed professionals who live and breathe their subjects and work tirelessly to support their students.
College lecturers are moving apace towards General Teaching Council for Scotland registration with the welcome and long-overdue recognition of lecturer professionalism that this brings. We should not mistake this process as one of fitting a square college peg into a school-shaped hole, prioritising graduates and "academic" subjects over "vocational" subjects (although the boundaries are increasingly meaningless in any case). We are all professionals and we should all be recognised as such – our students deserve nothing less.
Pam Currie is EIS-FELA president for the 2019-20 session