The return to national bargaining in further education in Scotland has raised a number of important questions in the sector – what does a lecturer’s job entail? What value should be placed on that role? How do we define lecturer professionalism? And how do we even begin to answer these questions in a sector that is hugely diverse, with lecturers teaching everything from archaeology to hairdressing, in contexts ranging from remote outreach centres to city centre classrooms.
The EIS teaching union's view is that the fundamental business of a college is learning and teaching, and that anyone who delivers the curriculum – regardless of subject or context – is a lecturer. As lecturers, we are expected to be expert in our vocational or academic area as well as gaining a teaching qualification and undertaking regular CPD to ensure that we work to the national Professional Standards for Lecturers.
The challenging role of lecturer
Teaching in further education, we work with some of the most vulnerable people in the country – our students may have a disability, live in poverty, be care-experienced or have English as an additional language. Our learners often arrive with a negative perception of the education system, whether they are young people who have disengaged with “academic” subjects in school or mature learners who left school with few or no qualifications. Despite this, we succeed – an independent report in 2017 found that Scottish college graduates generate an additional £20 billion for the economy over their working lives.
We have been alarmed in recent months by moves in a small number of colleges to deploy non-teaching staff – assessors, instructors, tutors and learning assistants – to teach learners. In one, where tutors were previously introduced as an apparent cost-cutting measure in prison education, a plan is underway to cut 31 lecturing jobs (around 10 per cent of the workforce) and to hire 32 instructor assessors. Another Scottish college has similarly announced an intention to hire instructors in some vocational areas of the curriculum, following another institution that already uses instructors in construction and hairdressing.
It is no coincidence that non-teaching staff have been hired in vocational subject areas with considerable practical work – suggesting a worrying perception that these subjects are viewed differently from traditional "academic" areas by management. Yet these are often the very areas where Scotland has a skills shortage – the plumbers, chefs, electricians and barbers who leave college ready for employment or to start their own business. These subjects are not “easy” subjects that anyone can walk in and teach. They are often in constantly changing industries where innovation and CPD are essential to economic survival, and where a sound understanding of health and safety can be a matter of life and death.
Instructors and assessors are replacing lecturers for one simple reason – they are cheaper. Not only are salaries lower, but such roles typically have no maximum class contact time and frequently spend 30 hours a week in front of learners, “teaching” from a pre-prepared pack with no opportunity to prepare classes to meet the needs of learners. This is unsustainable and has a hugely detrimental impact on the quality of learning and teaching.
The Scottish government is rightly proud of the high standards set for school teachers in Scotland, championed through self-regulation by the General Teaching Council for Scotland. A young person in a school classroom will be taught by a teacher who is appropriately qualified, undertakes regular professional learning and who has pay and terms and conditions that recognise that professional status – so why should colleges set their standards any lower?
The EIS is currently working with the GTCS, Scottish government and Colleges Scotland in the College Lecturer Registration Working Group to move the sector towards GTCS registration for college lecturers. While non-teaching roles are vital in supporting learners on their studies and ensuring equal access to the curriculum, we believe that staff delivering the curriculum and assessing students must be recognised and paid as lecturers.
Scottish government policy rightly places the learner at the centre of educational aims, seeking to widen access and ensure that the diverse range of learners’ needs are met. Central to these initiatives is the recognition of and value placed on the professional role of lecturers. Any proposals to weaken the educational delivery of the curriculum and impact negatively on the provision of quality education, should be resisted. Such action would not be tolerated in schools – nor should it be countenanced in the college sector.
Pam Currie is president of EIS-FELA, the union representing FE lecturers in Scotland