We know how to fix FE’s staffing shortages. It’s time college leaders did it

In-work poverty is a reality for many FE staff, writes Maxine Looby, and ignoring recommendations for pay awards every year just won’t wash anymore

In-work poverty is a reality for many FE staff, writes Maxine Looby, and ignoring recommendations for pay awards every year just won’t wash anymore

1 Apr 2023, 5:00

Staffing in further education has reached crisis point and now workers are fighting back.

Employers’ own data shows 96 per cent of colleges have difficulty recruiting, with an average 25 posts per college remaining unfilled at the start of the academic year.

Staff know why there is a recruitment crisis: Pay is too low, workloads are too high and far too often college employers fail to treat them as the skilled and experienced professionals that they are. 

The University and College Union (UCU) estimates that the salaries of college teachers have fallen behind inflation by 35 per cent since 2009,  while the pay gap between school and college teachers stands at £9,000. Employer body, the Association of Colleges (AoC) also admits 98 per cent of English colleges use ‘flexible employment contracts’. This is code for precarious employment practices such as term-time only, hourly-paid or even zero-hours contracts.

When UCU negotiate nationally with the AoC over things like pay, employment conditions and workloads, employers can choose to just ignore the outcome of those negotiations. For example, the AoC makes pay recommendations every year, yet in the main, colleges do not award any pay increase at all.

Low pay is having a devastating impact on the lives of our members. Last summer, we surveyed over 2,700 workers from more than 200 colleges across England. We found that the vast majority of college staff in England are financially insecure. Eight in ten said their financial situation is harming their mental health, and a shocking amount reported being forced to skip meals and restrict hot water use to save money. Seven in 10 said they will leave further education unless pay and working conditions improve.

Workloads are also through the roof. On average, college staff do two extra days of work unpaid per week and more than nine in ten staff (93 per cent) say their workload has increased over the past three years. 

We know the money is there to pay staff fairly

A situation like this doesn’t just harm staff, but students too. A college workforce which is exhausted, precariously employed, struggling on low pay and crushed under brutal workloads cannot be expected to deliver the best for students. We can do better, and we must. 

Last November, further education was reclassified as part of the public sector. UCU welcomes this step but it should not be seen as an end itself. It’s now time to negotiate a new settlement that respects our professionalism, rewards staff in line with other teachers and strategically invests in the future. 

We know the money is there to pay staff fairly. National funding for 16- to 19-year-olds has increased by 8.4 per cent this year, and UCU members are refusing to sit by and let the situation deteriorate.

Already this academic year, over 4,000 UCU members across England have downed tools – the biggest strike wave ever to hit the further education sector. Together, they won improved pay deals at over 20 colleges. And just last week, in an indicative ballot, 87 per cent of voting members said they are prepared to take strike action to secure an above-inflation pay rise, the introduction of binding national bargaining structures and an agreement on fair workloads. This could pave the way for coordinated strike action across over 200 colleges in England. 

Our special sector conference is meeting imminently to decide the union’s next steps, but it is clear that employers are risking unprecedented industrial unrest unless they address pay and workloads, and agree to enter into binding national bargaining agreements. 

It won’t do for college leaders to keep saying their hands are tied when what increases in funding there have been have not been shared with staff. The recruitment and retention crisis will not be solved by looking the other way to in-work poverty across the sector and hoping for an ever-willing supply of new lecturers to fill the gaps.

We know why this crisis is happening, and it’s time to fix it.

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