'Winter has come for FE industrial relations – national pay bargaining mechanisms are failing'

National pay bargaining mechanisms are failing the sector, writes Sean Vernell, of the UCU union

Sean Vernell

The pay of college staff is lagging far behind salaries in other education sectors, says union

Andy Forbes, principal and CEO of the College of Haringey, Enfield and North East London,  in a recent article for Tes, called for a “national mechanism that reinstates pay for all staff in English FE”.

He reveals how far behind FE frontline staff have fallen in terms of pay compared with other education professionals. FE lecturers are at the bottom of the pile. HE, secondary school and primary school teachers all get paid more than those of us who work in FE.

Forbes warns that if this inequality is not addressed, then in FE industrial relations, “winter is coming”.

The truth is winter has already arrived. University and College Union (UCU) branches across the country have submitted 168 claims in 148 colleges. The claims submitted are across a range of issues from pay to workload and fractionalisation to observation policies.

There is much in Forbes’ article we agree with. Indeed, we have been campaigning for national bargaining mechanisms that are meaningful for many years. We have warned the Association of Colleges (AoC) on many occasions that it must make itself relevant to all staff who work in the sector. Failure to do so will result the AoC becoming a spent force.

Real-terms pay cut

Unfortunately, we have arrived at this point. Whilst the employers want a national bargaining mechanism, they don’t want to implement its recommendations. Over 40 per cent of colleges have not even implemented this year’s recommended meagre 1 per cent pay rise – so small it actually represents a pay cut once inflation is factored in.

This is why just under half of the FE bargaining units have submitted claims. While UCU would welcome a serious and meaningful national bargaining framework, our members cannot wait. Our pay and conditions have never been so bad. Workloads are spiralling out of control, leading to physical and mental health issues. 

We have suffered a 21 per cent pay cut in the past five years. The impact of these cuts cannot be underestimated.

I know of a 25-year-old English lecturer thinking about leaving the sector because he cannot afford to buy a home and finds meeting the rent near-impossible.

A 60-year-old maths lecturer has to sleep in her granddaughter’s bedroom for five days a week because she cannot afford the transport costs to get back to her own bed every night.

A 46-year-old drama lecturer has just stopped paying into his pension because he cannot afford  childcare costs. I could fill the rest of this article with examples of the real hardship of those working in FE. The sector cannot survive unless these issues are addressed.

The claims that have been submitted are not only about pay. Many have submitted claims to offer fractionalisation to all Hourly Paid Lecturers (HPL) who have been working two years or more doing 10 hours or more. Hourly paid work is an indictment on the sector and puts it to shame.

Mechanisms are failing the sector

It cannot be right in the 21st century that there are members of staff who get paid up to £20,000 a year less than their colleagues on permanent contracts for doing the same work. It is an equality issue, too. The vast majority of those on HP contracts are women and disproportionately they are from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds.

Some chief executives and principals give two reasons why they cannot meet our demands: “affordability” and the fact they “implement the AoC recommended offer”.

We understand the impact of the government cuts into FE funding since 2008. We have and will continue to join with anyone to campaign to reverse these cuts. But it is simply not true that colleges cannot afford to meet our demands. One of the main drivers behind FE staff’s determination to see this campaign through across the sector, is the unfair way that funds are distributed across the colleges.

We regularly hear of college leaders earning salaries worth as much as 1 per cent of their college's entire turnover.

These principals and chief executives make a lot of the fact that their colleges have always implemented the AoC recommendations, which in recent years have always meant either a pay freeze or a pay cut. So can we take it that they would automatically implement an AoC recommendation for an inflation-pegged award of, say, 3 per cent?

If this is the case, the issue is not one of affordability. The money does exist but colleges and college groups are not awarding it because, “we can’t break from the AoC national bargaining mechanisms” – mechanisms that are quite clearly failing the sector.

There are many colleges that could afford a real pay award. It would be a serious misjudgement of the mood and determination of staff if chief executives who implement the AoC pay “cut” do so in the belief that they are “holding the line” by not responding positively to local demands.

Indeed, strikers’ picket line chants echoed this sentiment: “The money is there, we want our share.”

Sean Vernell, is the vice-chair of the UCU further education committee (FEC). 

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