The fight for fair pay is also a fight for the wellbeing of students, writes UCU’s Sean Vernell
The University and College Union will be re-balloting its branches who failed to get across the 50 per cent threshold before the Christmas break. Despite achieving the best turn-out in a national ballot for over a decade, with 85 per cent of those who voted supporting strike action for fair pay, union laws make it illegal for our union to act.If these thresholds were applied to a council or board of governors’ election, there would be many empty places and seats. The new laws were never designed to bring about more democracy. These laws were introduced to prevent working people using their human right to withdraw their labour when they feel that an injustice is taking place.
In fact, UCU has plenty of evidence to show that managers in some institutions are encouraging staff not to vote against action, but instead not to vote at all to ensure the thresholds aren’t meant. After having failed to win the argument that our pay is adequate, some have attempted to undermine a democratic vote by encouraging people not to vote at all!
But UCU is determined not to allow our members’ just cause to be quashed through an unjust law.
The 3,000-strong rally and lobby of Parliament that took place on 17 October was a turning point for our campaign for more funding for FE. It was not just its size but the broad nature of support for the week of action that made this protest so significant.
It wasn’t long ago that we in FE commonly complained, and rightly so, that no one cared about FE. But now we have genuine support from the Labour opposition and a unity between staff, students and principals not achieved before.
Our case for a properly funded sector that can provide decent wages for staff is now uncontested. A 25 per cent cut in pay over the last eight years, 24,000 jobs gone, which is a third of all jobs in the sector, and over one million adult education places lost.
There is not another sector in education that has faced such savage attacks.
Many have commented on how the chancellor’s budget was a missed opportunity to right these wrongs. A budget that once again stuffed the pockets of the already fabulously wealthy while taking away from those at the bottom of society.
What makes this campaign so powerful is that our members aren’t motivated simply by pay. The week of action spelled out what FE does. The 4 million people who attend FE in many different guises. The fact that despite these attacks 44 per cent of people who attend university come through FE. FE teaches more 16 to 18-year olds than any other sector.
These cuts have had a real impact on our young people’s wellbeing. The rise in mental health issues is one of the most concerning developments to take place among young people. While there are many complex and contributory factors as to why so many of them suffer from mental health issues the link to poverty is clearly at its core. The cuts in support services like Additional Learning Support (ALS) needed to support these young people has taken away a crucial safety net they so desperately need.
I see the scars
As a GCSE English teacher, I see the devastating impact the cuts in ALS has had on our students. I see the scars on their arms from self-harm. There has been a 68 per cent rise in self-harm since 2011. I witness the howls of pain as a student suffers an anxiety attack brought on by being forced to resit exams.
No young person should ever know what it is like to suffer such mental torment. What does it say about a society that allows this to happen?
It is for these reasons that the campaign will continue. FE must be about learning and the enjoyment of the discovery of new ideas as well as the practicalities of training and sustaining employment.
This is why UCU makes no apologies for re-balloting our members who voted overwhelmingly to fight over pay. The six branches that reached the ballot threshold will be looking to take strike action to launch a UCU national day of action over pay and the beginning of the re-ballots. UCU will also continue to focus on colleges that could afford to implement the joint unions’ claim but refuse to do so. UCU will no longer accept the clear pay inequalities within institutions in relation to senior post holders and the rest of their staff.
Our students deserve well-paid teachers. To campaign for a fair pay award is also about fighting for the real student-centred ethos that our members are so proud to champion.
Sean Vernell is vice-chair of UCU for further education