Tomorrow (24 February), for the first time in over a decade, UNISON and UCU in Further Education will be striking together for more pay. Mark, an FE lecturer in London discusses why they are taking action.
Why we are striking
Lecturers, admin and support staff working in Further Education colleges in England are to take joint strike action this Wednesday 24 February. UCU and UNISON members are striking for our union’s demand of £1 an hour extra pay for all members.
The strike is in response to the employers’ pay freeze – another 0% pay increase. Further Education (FE) staff have suffered real pay cuts totalling more than 17% over the last five years (for lecturers at the top of pay scale, this equates to a loss of over £6,100 a year).
Figures show a downward trend in FE colleges’ ability to recruit and retain staff: staff vacancies in teaching roles have increased from 70% in 2010 to 82.4% in 2014 (AoC). The length of time it takes to fill teaching vacancies has risen from 11.1 weeks since 2010 to 12.5 weeks in 2014 (AoC).
An uncertain future
However, this strike is about much more than pay – it is a step in the battle to take control of our future. Further Education is the “second chance” sector. It has given an opportunity to progress to hundreds of thousands of working class students who were failed by the system first time round. It is the sector that has helped migrants in their hundreds of thousands to develop their English language skills. It is the sector that has helped millions of people develop and progress in life. Yet it is facing massive threats to its future.
The Tories have slashed FE funding, seeing it as an easy target for huge cuts. Last year, the budget for adults was cut by 25%, only to be followed by another 4% to mandated ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages). Over the last five years, adult education has been cut by close to 50%. The University and College Union (UCU) has estimated that this cut could lead to a loss of 400,000 college students.
There is a plan for the future of further education, but it is not good news for students or staff. The government has launched a series of area reviews, which will see FE and Sixth Form colleges bolted together in a drive to cut costs still further. One document proposes scaling London colleges down from around 46 to 10, grouped in federations or mergers. For example, where there are currently 7 or 8 colleges in an area, there will be just 1 super-college in their place. Despite many assurances, unions see this going only one way – a reduction in the overall provision being offered for students, and yet more job losses. The government’s own guidance on area reviews admits that this “is likely to result in rationalised curriculum: fewer, larger and more financially resilient organisations”.
The new FE
In place of funded ESOL, Access and adult education courses, the Tories are planning courses for those who can afford to pay for them. As part of the government’s new network of Institutes of Technology and National Colleges, the newly merged super-colleges seem likely to focus more on apprenticeships and the needs of business.
The unions’ response
Activists in further education have begun a campaign to oppose the area reviews. Given the background context, the strike tomorrow is important. A solid strike by UNISON and UCU, with well-supported picket-lines, can send a clear message to the government – that we demand dignity and respect. It shows that we are willing to defend our jobs and conditions, and that we have a very different vision of education.