Union rejects AoC’s ‘totally unacceptable’ new pay offer for college staff

The pay offer has been upped to 2.5% from 2.25%

The pay offer has been upped to 2.5% from 2.25%

21 Jun 2022, 16:26

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A fresh pay offer for college staff has been rejected by union bosses today, who branded the 2.5 per cent recommendation “totally unacceptable”.

The Association of Colleges (AoC) upped its 2.25 per cent offer from last month to 2.5 per cent in a meeting with the University and College Union (UCU) on Monday.

The UCU was quick to condemn that offer, calling it “beyond insulting” while the cost-of-living crisis bites.

But college principals have since told FE Week that the AoC’s revised recommendation is “simply unaffordable” due to inflationary pressures on budgets.

The UCU, along with the National Education Union, Unison, Unite and GMB, has been holding out for 10 per cent pay rise, with a minimum uplift of £2,000.

It said that since 2009 staff had suffered real terms pay cuts and staff pay had fallen behind inflation by more than 35 per cent.

On Monday, the NEU, which represents teachers in sixth-form colleges, wrote to education secretary Nadhim Zahawi warning it will urge its members to support a ballot on industrial action unless he approved an “inflation-plus” pay rise for teachers.

The AoC, which represents college leaders, said existing funding pressures and soaring inflation meant a larger rise was not viable.

It prompted AoC chief David Hughes to write to education secretary Nadhim Zahawi last month to plea for emergency funding that would allow it to increase its pay offer. Last month’s 2.25 per cent offer and one-off £500 payment was the highest it has made since 2014.

Prior to its 2.25 per cent officer, the AoC has consistently recommended a 1 per cent pay increase.

The stand-off has led to a threat of strikes at 33 colleges. Industrial ballots in England went out last week, and close on July 15. Plans for strike ballots have been announced for a further two colleges over that past few days.

Jo Grady, UCU general secretary, said: “Employer representative the Association of Colleges continuing its refusal to offer further education staff anything close to fair play is totally unacceptable. While our members are more overworked than ever, going above and beyond to keep colleges running, they are facing an unprecedented cost of living crisis.

“One college staff member recently told us they have had to consider calling in sick to work because they cannot afford transport – nor can they afford the energy required to cook for longer than twenty minutes. It is beyond insulting in this context for AoC to continue degrading the pay of college staff.

“It’s not too late for AoC to avert disruption by giving further education staff a proper pay rise. Our members can’t afford another deep real-terms pay cut, and will fight for what they deserve.”

The UCU said it estimated that an extra £400 million in extra funding was available to colleges in order to pay staff more, with potentially more on the horizon with an 8.5 per cent increase to the 16 to 19 base rate in 2022-23.

Households across the country have faced increasing bills over recent months, including for food, petrol, energy and council tax among others.

David Hughes, AoC chief executive, said: “I am disappointed, of course, but not surprised that our revised offer to the unions was rejected because it fell short of their 10 per cent claim and will be judged by college staff in light of their own personal costs rising.

“I have said many times before that college staff deserve better pay, but that can only come if Government invests fairly in colleges.

“We will continue to pursue additional funding and support from DfE over the coming weeks and have also met with Treasury to press for support.”

Hughes added that unions had been asked to delay strike action “until after the critically important recruitment period to limit the impact on students and on student numbers”.

The AoC’s offer included a one-off £500 payment, with a recommendation that it is increased to £750 for those on less than £25,000.

Speaking to FE Week anonymously, one principal described the cash payment recommendation from the AoC as “simply unaffordable”, and added: “We always pay as much as we can responsibly, but this will be the first time in many years we won’t be able to at least offer what the AoC has recommended.”

EDITORIAL: A hard-one freedom or a failed experiment?

As FE Week went to press this week, the GMB and Unite unions announced that upwards of 700 British Airways workers could walk out over the summer over cuts to jobs and pay.

Strike action and industrial unrest are, literally, in the air.

This comes in the week that thousands of rail users, including students with crucial exams and assessments, have had travel plans disrupted or cancelled due to strikes called by the RMT union.

The NEU has told the government that it will ballot its members for walk-outs this autumn unless an “inflation-plus” pay award is put in place.

And the number of colleges facing autumn action is rising, with UCU announcing this week that teachers in another two colleges, on top of the 33 colleges we reported last week, were balloting on strike action.

Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi has, somewhat uncharacteristically, described the NEU’s proposed actions as “unforgivable” and “irresponsible”, while his cabinet colleagues deliver combative performances on the airwaves denouncing the “union barons”, proving that politics is at play over pickets.

The AoC, still with its responsibility to negotiate a non-binding recommendation on pay awards, is in an impossible position – and UCU must know it. It’s hardly the case that colleges have been quiet about the unexpected inflationary costs hitting budgets this year and next. We’ve been reporting on it for weeks.

Continuing to paint college bosses as the enemy is easy ground for UCU, but they must know that even if public sector unions win a small concession on pay over the summer – ministers still, for now, have colleges’ private sector status to get out of providing them with anything extra.

And if, as is widely expected, colleges are reclassified as public sector by the ONS in September, there’s no sudden automatic guarantee to national pay bargaining arrangements or nationally set pay scales.

The harder debate for AoC and its members, and the unions, is what should happen next if reclassification happens. For some, setting your own pay and conditions was a hard-won freedom, but for others, a failed experiment that has led to a race to the bottom for FE staff.

There are political choices to come this autumn, and it’s in that longer-term interest of their members that the AoC and UCU should also be focusing on now.

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