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The Weekly paper of the New Communist Party of Britain

On the education front

by New Worker correspondent

FOLLOWING the Government’s announcement that the Further Education (FE) sector in England will receive an extra £400 million of funding trade unions have said that the Association of Colleges will now have no option but to deliver on previous promises of a substantial wage increase for staff if it received a funding boost.

Last Thursday five unions, the GMB, the National Education Union (NEU), Unison, Unite and the University and College Union (UCU) submitted a joint claim. The main provisions of the claim were a move towards the full restoration of college pay levels to where they would be had college pay kept pace with inflation since 2009. The unions are also demanding a ‘living wage’, as calculated by the Living Wage Foundation (LWF), to be the minimum wage in the sector with all further education colleges in England becoming accredited living wage employers. They also want all contracted-out services to be brought back in-house with improvements in terms and conditions equal to those already directly employed by the colleges.

Speaking for the lecturers, UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: “We have finally seen £400 million in extra government funding so colleges must now deliver on their promise to staff that they would be first in line when the money arrives” adding that “any national Covid recovery plan must have further education at its core. But unless colleges honour their promise to pay staff, it will be impossible to attract and retain the staff colleges need to be able to play their role in the national recovery effort”.

NEU’s joint general secretary Dr Mary Bousted said there was a need for “urgent action to restore the huge real-terms pay cuts in further education. Staff in further education have a vital role to play in our economy and society. We must ensure that their pay reflects that key role, starting with a significant restoration of the real-terms cuts in this pay round. A view seconded by Unison’s national further education officer Leigh Powell who said: “Low pay in colleges has left catering, cleaning, security, administrative and technical staff struggling to make ends meet. Ministers say they want to improve further education and the UK’s skills base, but with this must come decent wages for staff”.

Speaking for FE support staff Unite’s Siobhan Endean added that the government must fund further education if it’s going to meet its aspirations for a highly skilled UK labour force and put flesh on its “levelling up” rhetoric pointing to the fact that “already there are skill shortages reported across the economy and they must be tackled as a matter of urgency”.

shone a light

Finally GMB National Officer Stuart Fegan said: “The coronavirus pandemic has shone a light on how our further education members have gone above and beyond in providing support to students, the public, and their institutions. Employers must do the right thing, recognise their sacrifices and restore college pay levels to where they should be if they’d kept pace with inflation.”

This will not be easy. In July the pay gap between school staff and FE staff was revealed to have increased to more than £9,000 a year. In addition Tes, the trade journal for teachers, notes that 16.4 per cent of staff in those colleges were on casual, variable, or zero-hour contracts.

Also in the education sector the New Joint Negotiating Committee for Higher Education Staff has made clear that the unions are also expecting a pay rise this year and will be pressing this claim early next month. Then, it hopes, it will be clear what state university finances will be in. But this will depend on the number of students who have signed up.

As with the FE sector there will be a particular focus on the issue of low pay with the details of claim made after the new national living wage and Living Wage Foundation pay rates are announced. Only the chosen few get to drink fifty-year old bottles of port at academic dinners in College halls.

Labour’s apprenticeships and lifelong learning spokesman, Toby Perkins, has criticised the government for one particular aspect of the government’s funding of FE colleges. He says: “For all the rhetoric, this government’s capital investment in our FE estate is neither transformational nor record-breaking”. He quoted official figures showing investment in college estates, after a minister revealed that the average annual spend fell by £244 million between 2010 and 2016. Labour’s capital improvements in FE colleges stood at £3.6 billion between 2001-02 and 2009-10. But for six years, the Con-Dem coalition spent £957 million between 2010-11 and 2015 -16. On average Labour spent £404 million a year compared with the £160 million average invested later.

Afterwards much funding was devolved from the government through the Local Growth Fund to local enterprise partnerships to spend on objectives such as supporting college capital projects. The Association of Colleges deputy chief executive Julian Gravatt tends to agree, saying the promised boost for capital funding only “follows years of underinvestment”.