Further education lecturers are today taking a second day of strike action in pursuit of a cost-of-living pay claim, despite negotiations taking place in an attempt to avert further disruption.
This is the third time in three years that lecturers in Scotland have been forced to take industrial action in the face of an intransigent management side. Following the return to national bargaining in 2015, we took strike action in 2016 and 2017 to deliver equal pay for all lecturers, as well as harmonising some – not all – core elements of terms and conditions.
In 2017, sustained strike action forced the Scottish government to intervene, engaging the services of a facilitator to support discussions and subsequently, in September 2017, to host a "lessons learned" conference to reflect on the dispute and take the sector forward on a positive footing.
Just a year later, we found ourselves balloting once again for industrial action. Lecturers have not had a cost-of-living rise since April 2016, and we do not accept the line that "money is money". Glasgow City Council has just settled a £500 million equal-pay deal, and no one – management, media nor politicians – has suggested that those workers should not get a cost-of-living pay rise. Many of our members got little or nothing through our equal-pay deal – that’s the nature of harmonisation – and we cannot accept a situation where we fought for equal pay, only to see it immediately devalued by inflation.
One outcome of 2017 and the "lessons learned" was the need for accurate, agreed data in the sector – data on staffing, on terms and conditions, but above all, data relating to the cost of future deals. To this end, we agreed that the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) would act as an independent body to "validate" data for both sides.
The SFC undertook this process for the revised claim submitted by the EIS union in December 2018 – a three-year cost-of-living pay rise based on public sector pay policy and similar to the settlement already agreed with support staff.
The support-staff deal had been costed by Colleges Scotland and validated by the SFC at about £14 million back in September 2018, and in a press statement, education secretary John Swinney was fulsome in his praise, highlighting the collaborative approach that had delivered this deal without industrial action. It came as some surprise, then, when the EIS’ broadly similar claim was returned with an estimated cost of more than £31m.
On further examination, it appears that different methodologies were applied to the two deals – in the support-staff deal, the year-on-year cost was calculated, while in the lecturers’ claim, the figures were based on consolidated costs. Both are valid calculations, but they are not comparable – we are working with apples and pears.
This inconsistency has further undermined the fragile trust in the sector, and raises questions over how seriously the employers’ association is taking the negotiation process. Why would it apply different standards in its calculations of our claim with strike action looming?
We should not be on strike today. We have met management twice since the last strike day, we have moved significantly, and there has been ample opportunity for negotiation. Until lessons are learned, it is our learners who will suffer.
Pam Currie is president of the EIS Further Education Lecturers’ Association