In this manifesto we want to address the immediate and long-term challenges we face in the further education sector and how we will approach them.
If elected, our General Secretary candidate will:
- Make securing binding national sectoral bargaining in every nation, the key priority.
- Fight for a sector that makes and implements decent pay awards and national workload agreements in every college. No ifs, no buts.
- Campaign for pay parity with school teachers.
- Fight for an alternative vision for further, adult and prison education that enriches the whole person, rather than only aims for ’employability’.
- Fight to restore ESOL Outreach and Adult Education.
- Campaign to abolish Ofsted and punitive, stressful monitoring practices.
- Defend victimised trade union reps to the hilt.
- Give branches the support they need when they take action.
- Ensure democratic decisions are implemented.
- Ensure further, adult and prison education is given parity to higher education within our union.
This document was co-written by Saira Weiner (GS candidate) with Peter Evans (VP candidate) as well as Richard McEwan, Regine Piling and Safia Fillisi, who are standing for election for NEC.
For many people, colleges are places where mainly working-class adults and young people come for a second chance at education and to transform themselves and their lives. 1.6 million students go to college in England every year. Further Education (FE) is a source of education, transformation, empowerment and community – as well as employment. Despite the vital role we play, we receive less funding per head than other sectors. Moreover, for staff in FE the daily challenges of providing education to teenagers, and adults returning to education, have intensified since the pandemic.
The market that has evolved since incorporation is a failed project. We need a new approach that values education as an intrinsic good and unleashes our creativity and that of our students. For many of us, the reclassification of FE as part of the public sector marks an opportunity to have a big discussion about where our sector is going.
For instance, the ideas contained in the National Education Service, proposed under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, was greatly informed by UCU policy. In particular the FE Manifesto (2006) with the preface written by Paul Mackney, former NATFE General Secretary who became Joint General Secretary with Sally Hunt when NATFE merged with AUT to form UCU. Also Reconstructing further and adult education in a post-coronavirus world by Sean Vernell (UCU Left member, long standing NEC member) a developed analysis and proposals for how UCU should approach its campaigns and industrial strategy in FE and ACE. These documents outline this vision of lifelong education, from Cradle to Grave. UCU has been developing this vision since UCU was formed — resisting marketisation and fighting for this vision goes back to the founding of UCU, not something that has just emerged in the last few years, as some would like to claim in UCU.
But for UCU to translate those ideas, we will have to make a strategic change to our further education industrial strategy and fight for it. The fight for decent pay and conditions is intrinsic to that wider and far reaching change.
Here, we want to set out how we can collectively work to fundamentally change the sector. A cornerstone of the strategy is to restore our ability to campaign nationally and to secure national binding sectoral bargaining. One based on levelling up the pay and conditions for all who work in the sector and giving us a voice to be heard and seen.
A failed market
Since incorporation in 1993, FE has been the test-bed for marketisation and introducing competition into education. Incorporation severed Colleges from local authority control. This preceded Academisation in the school system, with similarly disastrous consequences for staff terms and conditions, democratic accountability and the quality of education.
FE receives less funding per head than other parts of the education system. It was the hardest-hit education sector during the post-bankers induced crisis and Austerity measures. This is perhaps unsurprising given that Tory Ministers do not send their children to study at their local college! Millions of adult education places have been lost in that period, because investing in people’s social development is not understood by those who have enjoyed a first-class education.
This is a direct consequence of the market philosophy that was structurally designed into incorporation. Colleges competing with one another for students, no controls over staff pay or that of senior managers, and successive government cuts. It was, and is, a race to the bottom. Colleges became undemocratic chiefdoms whose role has been reduced to skilling working class students on the cheap and, the unemployed for manual and low-paid white collar work. That is why successful ESOL Outreach programmes that taught migrants and refugees to speak English and join in the full life of their communities were replaced with ‘employability’ courses that focused on taking those that could speak some English to get ready for jobs that often didn’t exist!
It wasn’t always this way. People wanted to work in FE, rather than count down the days to the next half-term break. Prior to incorporation, colleges had living mission statements extolling their role to educate and empower the communities they served. Focusing on pedagogy rather than spreadsheets was the norm. We are losing something we need to reclaim — before it is lost for good.
The soul of FE
After more than ten years of austerity, staff pay has been cut by 35%. Workload has increased, with added attendance-chasing and monitoring, wasting the majority of our administration and preparation time. The needs of students have grown since the pandemic, educationally and in terms of mental health. It is a much harder job now.
There is a historic and acute crisis of recruitment and retention within the FE workforce, which has a median age of mid-to-late years of life. So this is as sharp a crisis in colleges as it is in schools, if not worse. FE staff, particularly younger staff, are leaving to work in schools because of a £9k average pay gap. We lost well in excess of 25,000 jobs during Austerity. The real figure is likely much higher.
Part of Saira’s candidacy as General Secretary is a campaign to restore FE. That means professional pay and conditions with decent training and career development. It means freedom from endless micromanagement and monitoring. An education that meets the needs of our communities and liberates us to deliver the education our communities want and need in the way that works for them. We need to reclaim the soul of FE. That would make FE an attractive place to work again.
A sector that celebrates equalities
Saira has written about her pledges on equalities, but here is further expansion in relation to FE.
Although there have been calls to decolonise the curriculum in FE, particularly from our students who are increasingly from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, employers have done very little. This needs to change. Moreover, staff who are black face more bullying and harassment within our colleges — this needs to be challenged.
Across the post-16 education sectors women face increasing burdens — thanks to poor parental leave policies, increasing workloads and astronomical childcare fees. In our colleges, women members increasingly say they cannot keep up with the ever increasing workloads and looking after their children — they feel forced into reducing their hours which then creates a real financial burden. We have single mothers on permanent contracts forced to claim Universal Credit to make ends meet. UCU needs a dynamic campaign that links the issues of workload and pay to these equalities issues.
The Department of Education sent threatening ‘guidance’ to schools and colleges that only mentioned Israel and none of the violence in Palestine. Employers have pushed this through by restricting support for Palestine on campuses and threatening staff with disciplinaries where they do. We need to support and defend every member who shows support for the Palestinians. Many students have also faced hostility from management, with the fear that they will be reported through PREVENT, as encouraged in the DofE guidance. UCU must campaign to ensure PREVENT is abolished.
The UK Government has issued draft guidance for schools and colleges on trans and non-binary young people in schools and FE colleges developing its ‘anti-woke’ narrative and deepening its culture war against the LGBT+ communities and ultimately showing a lack of respect for young people. Additionally, the government has refused to confirm legislation making conversion therapy illegal. UCU Left have consistently worked with the equality committees of UCU including the LGBT+ MSC to campaign against this trans and homophobic environment. We have moved resolutions at congress which the UCU parliamentary team can use when lobbying MP’s and other pressure groups. We must continue and deepen this work to support our LGBT+ staff and students.
UCU’s current FE industrial strategy is not coherent
UCU’s recruitment and organising agenda needs an explicit focus — securing national binding bargaining and building national strike action to win it. We can’t just ‘build capacity’ abstractly, and knock the reality of what is actually possible right now into the long grass.
When you clearly fight, and fight for something it is much easier to recruit members and reps. Otherwise what are people going to join a union for, why would they dedicate time to be reps?
Our industrial strategy is not working and we need to change our approach. This is in the context of the biggest upturn of strikes for decades where other unions, as well as our colleagues in Higher Education have shown it is possible to engage the majority of our members in national and impactful action. We can do that in FE too, and learn the lessons from those campaigns.
The incumbent General Secretary proposes we continue with the current approach of local campaigns, some may turn into local disputes and eventually we may build up to a bigger critical mass. But fundamentally those disputes are about securing local deals in a context where issues like pay and pensions are UK wide and national issues.
Only 60 out of some 250 College employers have made some form of pay award this year. Remember that this year, Colleges were told in the summer that somewhere in the region of £500m more funding would come down the line: this year, £185 million and next year, approximately £275 million.
The so-called ‘twin track’ approach, is a poor compromise between effective national action and a take it or leave it approach of local action.
This year 8 colleges took strike action, last year 30 and the year before 15. Out of 250 colleges in England. These are often the same core colleges. When they win deals, in quite isolated circumstances, they are not generalised to everyone else. We are not levelling up. Branches and members are being left behind.
And increasingly those branches that have struck will find it harder to do the same thing every year. We are creating islands that are fighting for pay, only to see that tested against a wider market pulling wages downward. The campaigns have not achieved the critical mass required to fundamentally address funding in the sector or secure new money to go to staff pay.
There is a limit to how much you can fight national issues locally. A local strike would most often be to address what is simply a local issue. Pay primarily comes from government funding and is a UK-wide issue at source. The employers have acted to facilitate pay restraint overall and at times have held back from releasing what they can genuinely afford.
Local coordinated strikes over pay were a necessity in the face of difficult trade union environment and rapidly declining pay in the sector. Something had to be done to get action back on the agenda and prevent a rot setting in. But we should not institutionalise that as desirable, or even the most effective strategy. We need to make FE a national force.
How we approach national bargaining
The current process for national bargaining in FE in England is that UCU puts in a claim once a year, usually on pay and workload. We may meet the employers federation, the Association of Colleges (AoC), once or twice a year. In recent years they have recommended to their subscribers to pay a below inflation cost of living pay award or no award. Then, in a ‘good year’, about a third of colleges pay it, a third some of it and a third nothing.
Those fights and wins are worth it and we are not suggesting to throw the baby out with the bath water — as some on the Further Education Committee have sometimes suggested. But we are not matching up to what is required or possible.
There is no binding requirement for any college to pay the award. Some colleges are not part of the AoC and may or may not make some award.
This is a ridiculous state of affairs. Other parts of the education system such as schools, sixth forms and universities have binding bargaining arrangements. Where every employer has to honour national agreements in every institution.
This year we added an explicit demand for the employers to work with us to break this cycle and to implement a binding arrangement so that every college would be compelled to honour the recommendation.
The employers responded by saying they would work with UCU to explore the implications of doing so. This is a small step, but it is not insignificant and marks a step change from when our calls for a binding sectoral bargaining were brushed aside.
We have not seized on this opportunity. That is despite a spring e-ballot showing 87% of members on a 51% turnout supported a national ballot. This showed that there was a real desire amongst the FE membership to fight for this.
However, faced with pressure from staff on pay and a recruitment crisis in the sector, the employers are looking for a way to to stop undercutting each other and fix pay rates. They hope this will stop workers shifting to better paid neighbours. It is a live conversation in the sector among HR managers — what to do about the pressure of cost of living when competition is not working.
Does UCU shape this pressure for a new approach in our image for our members, or will a new bargaining arrangement be imposed on the employers’ terms?
If we secured binding national bargaining this would mark a real shift and a basis to secure decent pay awards and workload agreements for all. That would positively impact our ability to project wider educational and reforming demands on the sector.
Therefore, when the incumbent General Secretary says we are doing well and this is the biggest FE campaign ever, we disagree.
The majority of our members’ pay is still declining. There are thousands of pounds difference in pay between colleges within the same city. Workload hardly featured in the campaign nor did the case for a binding national bargaining. We did not advance those issues in any serious way.
The strategy set out by the GS is to simply do more of the same to ‘build capacity’ and hope to accumulate more branches year on year. We have to acknowledge this approach is not delivering.
Had the NEU adopted this approach it is unlikely they would have made an impact, got a deal for all members, or secured the 6.5% that all their members were paid which most of ours were not. They won 6.5% because they took several days of national strike action.
We are proposing a different strategy and will work night and day to back you to make it a success.
It won’t be a walk in the park to win an aggregated ballot or real binding national bargaining. We believe it can be done. To truly change, FE will require all of us to participate. But we think that is worth fighting for. If you agree, vote for us and get involved in your union.
Saira Weiner, standing for General Secretary
Peter Evans, standing for Vice President
Peter is a member of the NEC, representing LGBT+ members, and serves as LGBT+ Committee Chair. He works at West London College as a lecturer in business where he is also Vice Chair of his UCU branch. He is active with the Labour left. If elected he will be UCU’s first gay/queer activist president.
Richard McEwan, standing for NEC, London & East FE seat
Richard teaches maths at New City College, where he is branch secretary of UCU NCC Poplar. He is a serving NEC member and Vice Chair of FEC. He is a regular at the London Regional Committee.
Regine Pilling, standing for NEC Women (FE) and NEC, London & East FE seat
Regi teaches Politics and Criminology at Westminster Kingsway College. She is Branch Secretary of WKC and London Regional Chair. She is currently on the NEC representing Women in FE, attends Women’s Standing Committee and is a member of UCU’s Climate and Ecological Emergency Committee.
Safia Flissi, standing for NEC Women (FE)
Safia is an ESOL Lecturer at South and City College Birmingham. She is currently Vice-Chair of her UCU branch and previously was Branch Secretary for 6 years. She is West Midlands Region Membership Secretary and has been the Regions’ FE chair.