Today, members of the University and College Union (UCU) at Nottingham College walked out in the first of a mammoth 15 days of escalating strike action planned for September and October.
Staff are furious that the college wants to impose new contracts that will leave many of them significantly worse off. More than 80 people are set to lose over £1,000 a year from their pay packet and have their holidays cut – all on top of not having received a pay rise for nine years. The college management has been bullish in its approach, threatening to dismiss any staff who don’t sign up to new contracts.
If that wasn’t bad enough, the college also wants to remove rules that prevent teaching staff across the college from being burdened with unmanageable workloads. The new contract tears up a longstanding agreement that limits the amount of weekly teaching time, and gives the college free rein to increase teaching loads to unsustainable levels.
Why college staff are going on strike
Our members are understandably concerned about the inevitable impact that such plans will have on morale and wellbeing. But they are also deeply worried about how the changes will impact on their students. Increased teaching time means less time for lesson preparation and marking, less time to support students who need additional help outside of lessons, and less time for professional development activity – all of which will affect the quality of education that staff can offer.
The college says it wants to introduce new contracts to address issues with staff recruitment, but eroding safeguards against work overload risks having the opposite effect. It is common practice across the education system to limit the number of weekly teaching hours for staff to ensure they have sufficient time to focus on their students’ needs and their own development. Without an agreement on teaching hours, it may become harder to attract staff from elsewhere to work in the college.
Retaining a limit on teaching time is all the more important because in recent years we have seen a sharp upward trajectory for workloads in further education, and a growing trend of lecturers being asked to do more with – and for – less.
As college budgets have fallen and support services have been cut back, teaching staff have shouldered more and more responsibility for administrative and pastoral tasks. UCU’s 2016 workload survey found that further education staff are working more than 51 hours per week on average – equivalent to around two unpaid days a week. More than three-quarters (78 per cent) reported that their workload was unmanageable at least half of the time.
This situation is clearly unsustainable but, while recent governments have recognised the need for action on excessive workloads in schools, they have failed to tackle similar problems in further education – despite repeated entreaties from UCU and others. The education secretary, Gavin Williamson, has said he wants further education to be a priority, but if he really wants to ensure that vocational courses are held in equal esteem to academic alternatives, much more needs to be done to ensure that college staff are not overloaded and burnt out.
The dispute at Nottingham College is about defending an attack on our members’ pay and conditions and fighting back against moves that threaten to erode professionalism and undermine the quality of the education on offer at the college.
The chancellor’s recent pledge of additional funding for further education means there is now no excuse for the college to refuse to address the concerns of staff on the grounds of cost. Staff should always be the top priority for additional investment – after all, their working conditions are students’ learning conditions.
The decision to strike is never taken lightly, but the uncompromising approach of the college has only hardened members' resolve in fighting these damaging changes. If the college wants to avoid significant disruption to students in the coming weeks, it needs to work with us to agree a fair contract which rewards the hard work and dedication of staff, rather than treating them as an asset to be sweated.
Jo Grady is the general secretary of the University and College Union.
A Nottingham college spokesperson said:
“Everybody in the college cares passionately about providing our students with the best possible education, training and personal development and the last thing anybody wants is a strike. The College will be open as usual throughout any industrial action. We have already reached collective agreement with UNISON and NEU and we remain in discussion with UCU in the hope that we can resolve remaining issues and reach an agreement.
"While any moves by the government to rectify over a decade of under-funding is welcome, most of the money is allocated to specific areas of provision, for example, the new T Level qualifications, English and maths teaching and expensive to teach subjects like engineering. We won’t see any of this money until September 2020, it is only for one year, and any funds received will be subject to our enrolment numbers. With the continuing political uncertainty, we must wait and be sure that funding is secure.”