A college with precarious finances is set to be hit with six weeks of staff strike action, after leaders refused a double-digit pay demand that is “in no way financially viable”.
University and College Union (UCU) members at Bradford College will take to the picket line for their first day of strike action tomorrow, Thursday May 4, with 14 days over six weeks set to cause disruption over the pivotal exam season.
It comes as members rejected a £1,160 pay uplift – estimated to be a 4.3 per cent pay uplift on average or 3.2 per cent for lecturing staff – as the union had demanded a 10 per cent increase.
Union officials pointed to the 13.5 per cent Retail Price Index (RPI) inflation rate recorded for January, claiming that some members can no longer afford to drive to work or are skipping meals to make ends meet.
But college bosses said that “although understandable” the pay demand was “in no way financially viable” as it must ensure the college has a financially sustainable future that “does not inadvertently put jobs at risk”.
The college, which was on the brink of collapse just a few years ago, is currently rated ‘requires improvement’ financially, explaining that it was making significant efforts to achieve a ‘good’ financial rating.
Accounts for 2021/22 recorded a £6.4 million deficit and a £2.5 million deficit in 2020/21, with falling grant funding caused by a drop in student numbers among reasons cited.
The financial statements said that applications for further and higher education programmes “may prove to be challenging this coming year”.
The UCU pointed to a £9.3 million bank balance figure as evidence that a bigger rise was affordable, but the college hit back saying that those funds included capital grant funds ringfenced for essential student learning facility refurbishments and block payments from the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA).
Accounts show the college missed its target EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortisation) of 5.7 per cent in 2021/22, instead achieving 2.9 per cent.
Payroll staff costs had increased by around £1.5 million on the year prior, despite pay cost savings from held vacancies and restructuring plans.
The college recorded 906 staff of which 660 were teaching staff in last year’s accounts. FE Week has asked the UCU to clarify how many members it has at the college who will be eligible to down tools on strike days but did not receive a response at the time of going to press.
As well as an improved pay offer, union officials are calling for meaningful movement on addressing “unmanageable” staff workloads.
UCU regional official Julie Kelley said staff take-home pay had “systemically declined in value over the last 10 years,” with current pay levels embedding years of pay stagnation.
“Our members have had enough, they want a salary that keeps up with inflation and working conditions that treat them with the professional respect they deserve,” Kelley said.
“We urge chief executive Chris Webb to do the right things and improve the current offer so further strikes can be awarded.”
Kelley said striking during exam season was a “last resort”, adding that the college had had more than a year to address demands.
It comes as the UCU and the Association of Colleges undergo talks on the 2023/24 pay settlement recommendation, with discussions due to continue next week after the AoC said it was unable to make a pay proposal as circumstances currently stood.
A spokesperson for Bradford College said leaders would continue talks with members and committed to remaining open as it was a critical time of year for students.
“The college will endeavour to operate as usual with alternative staffing put in place for the continuation of learning and student support. Students will be kept informed of individual arrangements by their relevant curriculum teams,” the spokesperson said.
The college said its pay offer of £1,160 for all staff represented an average uplift of 4.3 per cent, and would be backdated to August 1 2022.
“This approach benefits staff on lower pay bands who are likely to be most affected by the cost-of-living crisis, instead of a percentage pay award, requested by UCU, that would benefit higher earners,” the spokesperson added.
The dispute comes as the college continues to rebuild its rocky finances.
At the end of 2017 the college was bailed out twice in one month to the tune of £1.5 million each occasion.
In 2019, it emerged that government officials had forced Lloyds Banking Group to slash a £40 million unsecured loan in half to prevent the college from becoming insolvent.
Last year’s accounts indicated the college had breached banking covenants four times in 2021/22, with further breaches forecast.
But the accounts said that the bank “continued to be very supportive” after granting waivers for those breaches and indicated that waivers are likely to be given in the near future as “a plan has been agreed that demonstrates a path to full covenant compliance by July 2024”.
The full strike days are as follows:
. Week 1: Thursday 4 May
. Week 2: Tuesday 16 and Friday 19 May
. Week 3: Wednesday 24 and Thursday 25 May
. Week 4: Monday 5 and Wednesday 7 June
. Week 5: Monday 12, Tuesday 13, Wednesday 14 June
. Week 6: Monday 19, Tuesday 20, Wednesday 21, Thursday 22 June