The Association of Colleges is standing firm on its refusal to make a pay proposal for next year, as doing so will “let the government off the hook”.
AoC chief David Hughes is also calling on unions to halt strike action during the crucial exam period while negotiations continue.
The latest meeting between the five unions from the National Joint Forum (NJF) and AoC today resulted in the association doubling down on its decision not to offer a pay recommendation for 2023/24, explaining that a 15 per cent demand was a “perfectly reasonable” ask but colleges could not afford “anywhere near what the unions are asking for”.
Following the first meeting last month, the AoC took the unprecedented decision not to make an offer unless ministers intervened to stump up more cash.
The association met with the education secretary Gillian Keegan and skills minister Robert Halfon to make the case for more money in recent weeks, who have “heard this message” but said that the Department for Education will now need to convince Treasury.
Hughes said: “Making a pay recommendation now would essentially let the government off the hook by either making a recommendation that colleges cannot afford or one that is far from adequate.
“We recognise the enormous pressure on staff caused by high inflation and the cost of living and that is why we are making the case to the Treasury and the DfE for a package of measures to increase college staff pay.”
Hughes referenced the teacher recruitment and retention crisis, and the pay chasm between FE teachers and their equivalents in schools, explaining that there is not enough money to ensure pay at least matches the offer to schools.”
The School Teachers’ Review Body is not due to report on its final proposal until July.
Hughes added: “In the meantime, I would urge union branches not to schedule strike action which aims to disrupt students as they come into college for their exams this summer. This is already a stressful time of year for students. Asking students to walk through picket lines when they are calmly trying to prepare for their exams is unfair and unnecessary and can be avoided by the unions.”
Asked by FE Week whether the AoC was passing the buck onto its paying members to decide by themselves what the pay award should be, Hughes said he was instead “putting the responsibility where it lies which is directly and squarely with the government”.
This year, the five unions – the University and College Union (UCU), Unison, National Education Union (NEU), GMB and Unite – have asked for an inflation-busting 15.4 per cent increase – the 13.4 per cent retail price index inflation increase from January plus 2 per cent.
It has also called for “significant movement” towards “meaningful national agreements to address workloads in colleges”, sector-wide agreement on a new national bargaining framework and a new national contract for FE staff.
Last year, the AoC made a 2.5 per cent offer compared to the forum’s ask for 10 per cent.
A statement from the joint FE trade unions said: “Its deeply disappointing to report that the AoC failed to make any recommendation on pay.
“While it is a fact that FE in England is underfunded, employers can and do make choices regarding what they prioritise to invest in, and for far too long employers have deprioritised investing in staff pay.”
The unions added: “The AoC position is to a large extent a function of the broken national bargaining arrangements in FE, where pay increases are only recommended, unlike in schools or sixth form where pay increases are implemented.
“We challenged the AoC to publicly state their support for the principle of binding national negotiations; regrettably, they did not agree to our proposal. It is the joint trade union’s view that the sector desperately needs a new settlement which covers funding, staff pay, negotiating frameworks and workloads. The reclassification of FE provides the opportunity for the AoC and the DfE to work with us to reset FE. Pressing repeat is not working.”