FE sector conference 21: We need a UK-wide fight over pay and conditions

This year’s FE sector conference is set in the context of a government lining up to impose another decade of austerity. After ‘needlessly allowing tens of thousands of people to die’, the government and the employers now want to make us pay for the public health crisis.

This offensive will come in a number of forms. Further cuts in our pay, worsening our conditions, more attempts to control our working lives and increased attempts to divide us through racism, transphobia, sexism and ableism.

We are told by government that the sector has worked miracles and that further and adult education are central to the future post-coronavirus world.

Indeed, we are. We have made many sacrifices to ensure that our students continued to get the education they deserve. Some of our members have paid the ultimate sacrifice through losing their lives.

Despite these warm words there is no extra funding to match them. The government’s White Paper on FE/Adult Education was trumpeted as a ‘revolution’ by Gavin Williamson, the education minister. Of course, it is nothing of the sort. Stupidly, many of our employers have joined the government in celebrating the White Paper.

But it will do nothing to put the sector at the centre of rebuilding society after the pandemic. The whole thrust of the government agenda is more narrow skills-based courses where young people will have no jobs to go to at the end of them. More marketisation and more power for government to ‘intervene’ to impose its ideological agenda on to our colleges and communities.

This marketised model will not match the many-sided ambitions of working-class students. It will do nothing to reverse the institutionalisation of mass youth unemployment. It will further marginalise our BAME students who are disproportionately affected by the cuts in funding.

We need a UK-wide campaign of strikes and protests.

Pay cuts, increase in workloads and more managerialism will be the order of the day – if we let them. But we don’t have to and we shouldn’t.

Congratulations to those 30 or so branches that got through the government ballot thresholds and delivered brilliant votes for action over pay. The union must now throw the whole of its resources behind those branches who are now entering a statutory ballot and we all must deliver the solidarity they will need to win when they take action. These branches are fighting for the whole of the sector and not just to get their members better pay and conditions. If they rise, we all rise. If they sink all our boats go under.

But we should not be in a position where only 30 branches across England managed to get across the thresholds. It was quite clear that there was no serious campaign to GTVO. A few all-members emails and leaflets sent to branches the same week the ballot opened does not constitute a campaign. When we compare the kind of publicity, resources and campaigning that takes place to ensure that HE branches get across the line we can see how little was done to get the same result in the FE consultation ballot.

We cannot stop the storm that is coming our way college by college. Case-working our way out of a government-led offensive simply won’t work. We need to mobilise the whole of FE with all branches taking part – no ifs and no buts. This is why the late motion submitted by the Croydon College branch is so important. It calls on the union to launch a national campaign of protests and strikes over workload and pay where ALL branches are to be balloted and regional offices are put on a war footing to ensure that branches are fully equipped to GTVO and beat the union thresholds.

A union that cannot deliver UK-wide action is one that will cease to be effective.

Adult Education – stop the clawback

If proof is needed to show how meaningless the government White Paper is then we just need to look at what has happened to Adult Education.  The sector has seen a 50% cut in funding in the last decade. Over one million students’ places have gone. Now the government want to clawback £68m from colleges who did not reach their targets that were set during normal times.

If the government gets its way with this clawback it will have a devastating impact on Adult Education. The union must launch a campaign across England, first to stop the clawback and then launch an offensive to win more funding for Adult Education. This conference must signal its determination to fight for Adult Education. It can start by supporting London Region’s call for a protest outside the Treasury on the 16th June.

 Motion FE6

Motion FE6 from Manchester College is very problematic and we urge delegates not to support.

The authors of the motion use the term ‘grade inflation’, a term that positions UCU, if passed, to the right of all education unions and runs contrary to UCU existing policy. It echoes the arguments put by the likes of the Daily Mail who use ‘grade inflation’ to keep out working class students from getting into university.

It is true that more students gained and will gain a good (ie 4-9) GCSE grade last year and this, compared with students who sat exams. We should celebrate our students’ achievements at all times but especially during the extreme challenges our students faced during the pandemic. These results reflect our students’ real abilities rather than their inability to beat a clock under exam conditions. The authors seem to accept that exam-based qualifications are a fairer and more accurate form of assessment, which also goes against existing UCU policy.

It is rather ironic that the first year in many that the term ‘grade inflation’ is not being used by government or colleges, because they accept that more students will get good grades, the UCU Manchester College branch reintroduces it to reinforce this elitist practice coming out of lockdown.

We must protect our members from unrealistic targets set by managers through continuing to campaign against numerical targets and for a progressive assessment model.

We call upon delegates to support motion FE26 from Yorkshire and Humberside Regional Committee. This motion puts forward a progressive approach to dealing with inequalities within the assessment process that, if passed, takes the union forward, unlike motion FE6.

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