Colleges close as lecturers walkout over pension dispute

Colleges close as lecturers walkout over pension dispute

Lecturers across the country went on strike as part of the industrial action against pension cuts.

A number of further education (FE) colleges closed due to the extent of the walkout, while others stayed open but experienced disruptions to their daily schedules.

The action took place on Wednesday as part of a nationwide public service strike, which saw up to two million workers in sectors including education and health walkout.

Despite the college closures, principals remained adamant that no teaching hours would be lost.

Peter Mayhew-Smith, principal of Kingston College, said: “With almost all of our site and security teams planning to strike, we cannot open all the college sites safely.

“Instead, we will replace all lost hours during the rest of the year so that no student loses any of their learning.”

Teachers and staff at Greenwich Community College picketed outside of the campus’ main entrance before joining a joint union rally at General Gordon Square. Claire Miller, a lecturer and community development worker at Greenwich Community College, said: “It’s not as if our current salaries and our current pensions are excessive.

“The myths that are being put out by the government are a travesty for those of us that are working here.”

She added: “In June, the bankers said in justification of maintaining their high levels of both income and bonus that if you didn’t pay what bankers were due, you wouldn’t get the same quality of banking – and banking would collapse.

“It begs the question, why different for teaching and public services? Why should that be any different?”

Mary Bottomley, another lecturer at the college, said the government needed to show more “good faith” to the public sector.

“I think they have to face the reality that lots of people are feeling angry, disgruntled, and worried,” she said.

“We’re not asking for a silver handshake, a golden handshake or anything like that. It was done in good faith and we want that good faith reciprocated.”

The picket line was just one of more than one hundred demonstrations taking place up and down the country. The epicentre of the industrial action took place in the capital, where thousands of concerned public workers marched from Lincoln Inn Fields, near Holborn, to a rally in Victoria Embankment.

Walter Valentine, a lecturer at Cambridge Regional College and member of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), said: “The government is deliberately provoking some sort of reaction because they want to try and use some of the money from the pensions pot to offset some of the deficit.

“The problem has been that we’ve been given no alternative – the government has refused to negotiate and they’ve already imposed changes on the pension scheme without negotiation.”

Under government proposals, pension contributions from lecturers in the FE sector will increase from 6.4 per cent to up to 9.8 per cent by 2015.

Lecturers earning less than £15,000 are said to be excluded from the contribution increases.

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), has been involved in recent negotiations with government.

There are also hard liners. Militants, itching for a fight”

She said: “What is very clear is that there is not good communications, and not agreed figures between those who are negotiating with us and the Treasury.

“We have been going in there with good faith, and I have got no issue with the civil servants that we are dealing with, but those civil servants have no mandate to extend or change the amounts of money we are talking about, at which point we are simply talking about moving around different figures to mitigate cuts in different places.”

Public sector pensions have already been switched so that each year they now rise in line with the Consumer Price Index (CPI) measure of inflation, rather than the Retail Price Index (RPI).

The Independent Public Service Pensions Commission, led by Lord Hutton, has said the change will cut the value of public sector pensions by roughly 15 per cent.

Additional proposals include increasing the retirement age to 66 by 2020 and up to 68 by 2046.

Mr Valentine said: “They’ve already announced that we’ll be working longer, moving from 66 to 68 years of age.

“As one colleague joked at a committee, ‘I started my primary school teaching taking children to the toilet, and I just feel that by the time I’m 68 they’ll be taking me to the toilet!’”

Michael Gove, secretary of state for education, called on teachers to “think again” about taking part in the industrial action during a speech at the think tank Policy Exchange.

He said: “Union leaders are people that work hard for their members, and who I respect.

“But there are also hard liners. Militants, itching for a fight. They want families to be inconvenienced. They want mothers to give up a day’s work, or pay for expensive childcare, because schools will be closed. They want teachers and other public sector workers to lose a day’s pay in the run up to Christmas.”

Mr Gove added: “These people want scenes of industrial strife on our TV screens, they want to make economic recovery harder, they want to provide a platform for confrontation, just when we all need to pull together.
“I want to appeal directly to teachers, and other public sector workers – please, even now, do think again.”

Not every Union was supporting the strike action however. The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), representing 15,000 leaders of secondary schools and colleges, had ‘different views’ on how best to solve the dispute.

Brian Lightman, general secretary of ASCL, said: “ASCL members fully understand and share the anger of those teachers who have reluctantly decided to take industrial action.

“While we have different views on the best way to resolve the dispute, all the unions are united in opposition to the severity of the proposed changes to pensions and have been working with one voice to influence negotiations.”
Mr Lightman added: “Negotiations are at a highly critical stage but there is reason to believe that with a constructive approach and goodwill from all parties we can reach a successful outcome. The government must show that it is serious about reaching a compromise.”

 People are feeling angry, disgruntled, and worried”

Voice, a union for education professionals, strives on its cardinal rule that “members shall not go on strike in any circumstances.”

Philip Parkin, the general secretary of Voice, said: “Voice members do not undertake industrial action because we believe it to be ineffective, negative and damaging, both to the cause of those taking it and to the interests of children, students and their parents.

“Those whose lives are disrupted by strike action are not those responsible for making decisions on public sector pensions.”

Unions will continue to negotiate with the government in the run up to Christmas.

Sally Hunt said the unions would continue to push “as far as is necessary” to try and change the proposals.

“If I was them, I would think very hard about being as stubborn as they are being because I think they’re losing credibility throughout the sector at the moment every time they open their mouth,” she said.

“People are not greedy, and people are not selfish, and people want to see a resolution to this.”