England’s FE colleges face ‘unprecedented’ wave of strikes

Staff across country will take 10 days of action, spread over a four-week period, in protest over latest pay offer

An “unprecedented” wave of strikes will disrupt further education (FE) colleges across England later this month, when staff will take 10 days of action, spread over a four-week period, in protest over their latest pay offer.

The University and College Union (UCU), which represents FE staff, claimed it would be the largest ever strike action in English further education, affecting 26 colleges from Yeovil and Bath to Carlisle and Croydon, and it may not stop there.

Staff at an additional three colleges in the north-west took two days of strike action last week, and a further nine have mandates to strike, which could result in even more widespread action in the absence of an improved pay offer.

The Association of Colleges (AoC), which represents employers, has recommended a 2.5% pay rise, but with RPI inflation running at 12.3% and predicted to hit 20% by January, the UCU says the offer is not enough.

Over the last 12 years, college staff pay has fallen behind inflation by 35%, according to the UCU, which recently published a report that said the vast majority of college staff are financially insecure, with many forced to skip meals and restrict their use of energy to save money, while seven in 10 are considering quitting FE altogether.

The union argues that the Department for Education (DfE) has announced an additional £1.6bn in extra funding for FE and estimates that colleges already have an extra £400m to spend on staff compared with 2019-20. College leaders say much of the additional money has already been eaten up by inflation and rising energy bills.

“Inflation is soaring and college bosses have more money at their disposal than they have had in years, yet they are refusing to protect their staff from the cost of living crisis,” said the UCU general secretary, Jo Grady.

“College leaders need to wake up to this crisis, stop dining off the goodwill of their workforce and make a serious pay offer. Failure to do so will lead to the largest strike action that English further education has ever seen.”

David Hughes, the AoC chief executive, agreed that staff deserved more pay, but said the money was just not available. “This pay increase is both inadequate compared with inflation, but also on the cusp of what is affordable for most colleges.

“The modest increase in funding rates last year contributed to our increased pay recommendation this year, the largest in over a decade, but this funding has largely been eaten up by soaring inflation and spiralling energy costs.”

Hughes said the temporary support announced by the government last week to help colleges with energy bills was merely a sticking plaster and would need to be extended. “But beyond that, colleges need a significant funding increase – much more than at present – if they are to truly fulfil their role in delivering a stronger economy.”

The DfE’s position is that the government has already provided additional funding for FE and it is up to colleges to set pay awards. It is also facing possible industrial action in schools, with both of England’s main teaching unions, the National Education Union (NEU) and the NASUWT, preparing to call strike ballots this autumn.

The higher education sector is also likely to be hit by another round of strikes over pay and pensions after the UCU opened a strike ballot for members at 151 campuses across the UK last week.
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