Whatever the result of this week’s general election, one thing is already clear – the next government, whoever it may be, is committed to boosting further education and skills.
During their campaigns, all of the main political parties have pledged extra cash for skills, apprenticeships and adult education if they are elected. The penny appears – quite literally – to have finally dropped on the need for additional resource to meet the country’s growing skills needs.
Unsurprisingly, the promised monies are largely parcelled up in shiny new initiatives – from the Conservatives’ National Skills Fund to Labour’s lifelong learning entitlement and the Liberal Democrats’ plans for £10,000 Skills Wallets, Some parties’ plans are more ambitious than others, but all of them mean that colleges will end up with more resource in the near future.
Manifesto analysis: What the election manifestos really mean for FE
Election 2019: More funding for FE
The key question facing colleges, then, is not about how to make ends meet, but how to put this long-awaited funding to best use. Much like those heading to the polls this week, college leaders currently face an important choice that will set the mood music for the coming years.
A key priority must be to close the gap between rhetoric and reality when it comes to how further education staff are valued by their employers. Staff are the cornerstone of every successful college, but for many years they have received little more than warm words from their employers.
In recent years, the Association of Colleges (AoC) has acknowledged that pay is an issue in the sector, but has repeatedly failed to bring forward a pay offer that would meaningfully address the problem.
The derisory 1 per cent offer made last month has rightly been viewed with despair by staff in the sector. This latest below-inflation offering, made in the wake of a 3.5 per cent pay award for school teachers who are already paid £7,000 more on average than teachers in colleges, does nothing to close that gap or address the 27 per cent fall in the value of staff pay in further education since 2009.
Members of the University and College Union (UCU) and sister trade unions in further education have campaigned enthusiastically alongside college leaders to call for more government investment in the sector. They have done so on the promise from employers that staff would be at the front of the queue for investment when that effort eventually bore fruit.
Better pay for college staff?
The £400m investment committed to the sector by chancellor Sajid Javid in August was the first evidence that the message was really getting through to politicians, but staff feel betrayed because this hasn’t translated into the AoC’s latest pay recommendation.
Despite the increase in funding, employers continue to argue that there is not enough resource for a decent pay rise. But even before the extra investment was confirmed, a number of employers like Hugh Baird College and Lambeth College rejected this gloomy assessment and showed how better deals for staff can be achieved. The tired old excuses are wearing thin; employers can’t keep kicking the can down the road on pay.
UCU members in colleges have shown time and again that they won’t sit back and accept attacks on their pay and conditions. At Nottingham College, UCU members recently walked out for 15 days in September and October over attempts to impose new contracts that would cut pay and workload protections. While staff at Tower Hamlets College took their eighth day of strike action just last month in an ongoing row over pay.
Just as we hold our politicians to account when they fail to deliver on their word, UCU will continue to hold college leaders to account if they fail to improve on their offer to staff. Unless the employers grasp the nettle and bring forward a better pay offer for 2019-20, further disruption is likely in the new year.
The renewed political enthusiasm for further education – and the promise of more funding to match it – is a turning point for the sector and comes on the back of unprecedented joint campaigning. There will be more work to do in convincing the new crop of MPs and ministers of the need for serious, long-term investment in the sector. Without a decent pay offer, the coordinated work that has secured significant attention will become increasingly untenable.
Staff in further education have suffered through a decade of decline – 10 years of cuts, closures and pay suppression. There is now an opportunity for college leaders to strike a different tone for the decade ahead, by rewarding their staff fairly for the important work they do. Let’s hope they take it.
Andrew Harden is UCU's head of further education