Your support keeps us publishing. Follow this link to subscribe to our print magazine.

College Workers Are Fighting for Education’s Future

Since 2009, pay in further education has fallen in real terms by a shocking 35%. Now college staff have joined the strike wave – for decent pay, and for a system that values workers and the communities they serve.

UCU estimates that since 2009, the pay of FE lecturers has lost 35 percent of its value. (UCU City of Bristol College / Twitter)

UCU members at 29 Further Education (FE) Colleges in England are currently in the midst of up to ten days of strike action, in what UCU has said is an ‘unprecedented’ dispute over pay, workload, and respect.

As with other strikes taking place among rail workers and postal workers, the FE strike has seen a high level of participation from ordinary members of the union. There have been large numbers of members out on the picket lines, giving them the flavour of a rally or protest.

Low-paid learning assistants, whether in UNISON or UCU, have been at the heart of the strike joining picket lines, and in the case of UNISON members, refusing to cross them. A new movement of solidarity in FE is underway, with many younger people participating in strike action for the first time.

The feeling, for the members concerned, has been one of liberation and empowerment. Temporarily free from the pressure and stress of Ofsted and top-down senior managements, striking members in FE have finally begun to sense the collective power that comes with organisation.

The Context

Most people who work in FE love the sector. Nowhere else do you have the opportunity to teach such as diverse range of students, and many colleges, or at least the ordinary staff that work in them, have fought hard to retain a community ethos, even through the growing pressure to operate like a business.

But this strike has been a long time coming. UCU estimates that since 2009, the pay of FE lecturers has lost 35 percent of its value, and that on average it’s now £9,000 behind that of schoolteachers. At this same time, around 25,000 jobs have been slashed from the sector, resulting in course cuts for students and increased workloads for staff.

This year, the Association of Colleges (AOC)—the umbrella body for FE college employers—made a recommendation for a 2.5% pay rise. This desultory offer, well below the current Retail Price Index rate of inflation of 12.3%, is despite increased funding for the sector in recent years. UCU estimates that as a result of increased Department for Education funding, colleges have an extra £400 million to spend on staff pay compared with the situation in 2019-20.

The situation is made worse as the AOC ‘recommendations’ are not binding, and only a minority of colleges tend to actually implement them. In practical terms there’s no meaningful national bargaining on pay and terms and conditions in FE, the result of longstanding central government policy.

In the 1990s, under John Major’s Conservative government, FE colleges were taken out of Local Education Authority (LEA) control. Ever since, there’s been an attempt to make FE colleges operate like independent businesses. In many ways, this was the prototype for the academisation of schools which began a decade or so later.

It’s resulted in a race to the bottom, with disastrous consequences for working conditions in the sector. It’s also enabled the concurrent rise of a ‘CEO culture’ among college senior managers, with many principals now earning in excess of £200,000 a year. That’s despite colleges often serving economically deprived communities.

The Fightback Begins

For the large part, the misery heaped on the FE sector throughout the austerity years has been endured, rather than actively resisted. Moreover, the 2016 Trade Union Act has made any sort of national action much more difficult to achieve.

But there are signs that things are changing. An impressive pay offer was won at the City Capital Group of colleges following strike action last year, and with the cost of living starting to spiral in 2022, UCU embarked on a bolder attempt than in previous years to get a national pay campaign going in FE, including a consultative ballot of all FE colleges back in March.

The strategy was to try and launch as many local pay disputes as possible in the hope that workers could win significant concessions on pay, and that the disruption of strikes at individual colleges would pressure employers and the AOC to return to meaningful national bargaining.

Implicit in this strategy was the assumption that UCU would struggle to get over the threshold for action in a national aggregated ballot of all FE Colleges. Balloting individual colleges on a disaggregated basis would let them enter into dispute and enable something of national pay campaign in FE to emerge, should a sufficient number of them get over the threshold.

Midway through this year’s ten days of scheduled strike action, nonetheless, it’s clear that the strike is very well supported in the participating colleges. Important results have been secured at both Croydon and Abingdon & Witney College, resulting in pay rises of 8% for the lowest paid staff.

On the whole, though, college employers are proving intransigent in their unwillingness to meet workers’ demands. At Oldham College, staff were told by their Human Resources department that their strike action was illegal following their management’s imposition of a 2% pay offer. UCU general secretary Jo Grady was forced to write to UCU members there to assure them that this was not the case, and their strike went ahead.

Many employers are insisting that awarding pay rises above the AOC’s 2.5% recommendation will put at risk the financial viability of their colleges. In these circumstances, pressure will be applied to UCU members to reach deals that fall well short of their original demands—and it will be important for UCU members to resist it.

The Future

Despite these difficulties, the strikes are having a considerable impact. And with Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng openly committed to waging class warfare, it’s felt great to be fighting back alongside unions like the RMT and the CWU.

Hopefully, open struggle in FE can have something of a galvanising impact as other unions move towards national ballots over pay. UCU members in Higher Education are currently in the midst of national ballot that, if successful, could see the entire university sector come out on strike. The National Education Union looking set to follow suit among schoolteachers.

A national aggregated ballot of all FE colleges probably needs to be our next step in the not-too-distant future. If a national ballot could be won and the whole FE sector were able to come out on strike, we’d be able to put serious pressure on the government for more funding for the sector as a whole. Ultimately that seems like it will be necessary if we’re to win our demands on pay.

And generally, the more unions that can win national ballots, the better position the movement as a whole will be in to coordinate strikes and resist the Tory government. After all, pay rises are only one part of the problems facing our sector: the restoration of collective national bargaining is needed in FE, and colleges need to be brought back under proper local democratic control so that they can most effectively serve the communities that need them.

New Labour refused to do this between 1997 and 2010, even if the funding settlement was more generous. Significant pressure will therefore need to be brought to bear on any incoming Labour government to ensure we get the serious, system-level change we need.