Andrew Harden reflects on FE events at the UCU 2015 congress in Glasgow.

The University and College Union’s (UCU) first annual congress under the new government took place in Glasgow recently.

The two-day event included a special sector conference attended by delegates from across the FE sector and a joint conference with colleagues in higher education.

The FE sector conference covered a range of topics — from pay and conditions to professionalisation, accountability and equalities — reflecting the breadth of interests and concerns among UCU members.

Delegates warmly welcomed news that Ofsted will no longer grade lesson observations from September 2015, hailing the decision as a positive step forward. While concerns remain about internal lesson observations and other elements of performance monitoring, members agreed that the decision not to grade observations was helpful progress.

Unsurprisingly, though, the majority of the discussion at conference was framed by the decision of the last government to cut up to 24 per cent from English FE budgets next year, as well as the even deeper cuts facing colleges in Wales and Northern Ireland.

While acutely aware of the broader financial and political context, members were resolute in their demands for improved pay and working conditions

Delegates expressed major fears about the impact of funding cuts on colleges and learners, and the direction of travel of the current government in prioritising apprenticeships over other provision. They were clear that spending reductions which led to course closures would seriously affect equality of access to learning, particularly for learners from disadvantaged backgrounds. Several of the motions referred to specific concerns about the impact of the cuts on equality groups, with plans made for audits to be carried out looking at the likely effect of cuts on different groups.

More broadly, members expressed concern about the impact that reduced capacity in the sector would have on the student experience.

Delegates linked funding reductions to rising workloads and bigger class sizes, both of which are increasing stress levels in the sector and diminishing lecturers’ ability to deliver high quality learning. Following a report from UCU on the eve of congress that looked at the human cost of casualisation, delegates reinforced their opposition to the use of zero-hours and other forms of casual contracts and vowed to continue campaigning on the issue.

While acutely aware of the broader financial and political context, members were resolute in their demands for improved pay and working conditions. The motions on pay moved at last month’s conference reflected the fact that lecturers have suffered a 17 per cent real terms wage cut in recent years, equivalent to over £6,000 less in their pockets.

Delegates sent a strong message to the Association of Colleges that they are prepared to fight for better pay and conditions as part of a broader campaign for investment in further education.

Those attending the conference agreed that public spending reductions on skills learning represent a conscious political choice rather than a reflection of circumstance. Delegates rejected the politics of austerity and agreed that the focus for the year ahead must be on making the case for all kinds of FE.

The new government’s aims for full employment and better lives for working families will simply not be achievable without greater investment in the skills which enable people to fulfill their potential.

Delegates agreed that there must be no compromise in defending job losses, because every lecturer who loses their job due to funding cuts represents the closure of hundreds of learning opportunities for students.

With many difficult challenges on the horizon for the sector, the overriding message from UCU congress was one of strength in unity.

Delegates highlighted the need for the sector to present a united front, with employers, sector organisations, lecturers and learners working together to demonstrate the economic and social benefits of FE to politicians.

That challenge begins now.