Our members have just voted ‘yes’ to strike action at 32 colleges in the fight for fair pay and conditions. Given the state of further education, this should come as no surprise.
Pay has been held down so much that college teachers now earn £9,000 less than their counterparts in schools. Workloads are so high that staff say they are forced to work an average of two days extra each week, unpaid, just to keep up.
After our ballot started, the college employer body the Association of Colleges (AoC) met with us and recommended a 6.5 per cent pay uplift. The recommendation confirms what we know: that after years of campaigning by UCU, further education is finally getting some of the funding it needs.
Indeed, many employers can afford to offer much more than 6.5 per cent – and should do so.
Make no mistake, there is no chance the AoC would have put this offer on the table were it not for the pressure we are applying. However, there is one important difference between the 6.5 per cent pay offer accepted by teachers and the recommendation put forward by the AoC: colleges are under no obligation to implement the uplift.
Each year we see many colleges failing to implement the recommended pay rises – even when these have been as little as one per cent. This is why, as well as a decent pay rise, we are demanding a new national bargaining framework for the sector with binding outcomes, so all staff get a pay rise.
So far, the AoC has failed to address workload concerns or make any concrete commitments to a new bargaining framework. Our members aren’t getting a fair deal, but college bosses have been splashing the cash elsewhere.
From 2020-22 the amount spent on buildings and equipment jumped by 50 per cent, but money going to staff crept up by just one per cent. In 2022, college leaders increased their own salaries at quadruple the rate recommended to workers that year. One principal got a total package of over £360,000.
The AoC accepts colleges face a staffing crisis, and far too many college staff are themselves in crisis.
They have told us that financial struggles are impacting their mental health, with many saying their pay cheque doesn’t even cover the bare essentials. We have reports of staff rationing their heating, skipping meals, and using food banks. This situation is completely unacceptable, and it‘s untenable.
No worker should have to choose between eating and heating. Our members are entrusted to transform the lives of our young people and give adult learners a second chance at education, the very least they deserve is a salary that can pay the bills.
Considering this situation, it is sadly no surprise that colleges have lost a fifth of their teaching staff since 2015. One member told us: “There is no hope, it’s a difficult job and even small treats like a meal with a friend are out of my reach. My debt keeps mounting and the only paths out of it seem to be further debt or starvation.”
Both Labour and the Conservatives have made clear in recent weeks that they want colleges to skill up the nation, but that can only be done if teachers’ pay and conditions are good enough to sustain their lives and stay in the sector.
It is also crucial that, in building a sustainable future, the sector is linked more explicitly with the green skills agenda. That’s why the formation of a transition commission for FE is a core bargaining demand in this year’s claim. This ballot result shows the strength of feeling amongst staff that urgent change is needed.
College bosses now need to meet with us, do the right thing and raise pay. Any that refuse to do so will be signing up to unprecedented industrial unrest. We hope they choose to work with us.