Today, college employers and negotiators from six trade unions will try to settle the latest pay dispute to hit further education. Unions representing lecturers and non-teaching staff are demanding a 6 per cent rise (or a minimum of £1,500) while employers have only been willing to offer 2.5 per cent.
Pay disputes are not exactly a new feature of further education. Since 2003, when a two-year agreement brought lecturers' salaries closer to those of school teachers, there has been dissatisfaction with two below-inflation increases – especially as some colleges failed to pay what was agreed at national level.
A one-day strike by the University and College Union in late April received far less media attention than a walkout on the same day by the National Union of Teachers but, unless the two sides find common ground today, the FE dispute looks certain to hot up.
At their annual conference last week, UCU members voted for protests yesterday followed by a London-wide strike next Monday to coincide with a lobby of MPs. Two further days of strike action are threatened in September.
Barry Lovejoy, the UCU's head of further education, says next Monday's strike is a taster for what could follow in the autumn. Whereas school teachers generally earn about 6 per cent more than FE lecturers, in London the pay gap is about 10 per cent, he adds.
A recent study by the Learning and Skills Network found that, while most staff enjoy their jobs, only 31 per cent of lecturers would recommend their college as a good place to work. According to the study, half of lecturers plan to leave the sector within five years. With nearly two-thirds of FE staff aged 45 or above, many are certain to retire – leaving colleges with a serious recruitment problem.
"There is a potential time-bomb ticking in the sector," warns Lovejoy. "Employers need to go back to the drawing board and come up with an offer that will enable FE to avert a staffing crisis that could well derail the Government's skills strategy."
The Association for College Management, one of the six unions taking part in today's talks, confirms that recruitment is becoming trickier. "We are not sucking people in at entry level," says Peter Pendle, the ACM's chief executive. "People are becoming more demoralised and are retiring on lower pensions earlier than they used to."
Pendle believes there may be room for compromise if employers offer a rise "in the region of 3 per cent", providing they make greater effort to ensure it is implemented everywhere. "We recognise that times are difficult for colleges," he adds.
Martin Freedman, head of pay and conditions at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, insists there must be an underpinning rise for lower-paid non-teaching staff, as well as further efforts to narrow the pay gap between school teachers and lecturers.
"With the introduction of 14-19 diplomas, many lecturers and teachers will be teaching the same subjects and, in some cases, the same students," he says. "It seems unfair that your pay should depend on which building you are working in."
The Association of Colleges, which represents employers, says 93 per cent of colleges eventually followed last year's pay recommendation, although it is unclear how many awarded staff the two-stage rise (worth 2.5 per cent over 12 months) from the outset.
Evan Williams, the AoC's head of employment policy, says this year's recommendation of 2.5 per cent on all salaries and allowances "represents a well considered and affordable increase for colleges in light of funding allocations".
The AoC is to review working hours and training opportunities. All lecturers are now required to join the Institute for Learning, a new professional body. While the £30 registration fee is paid by the Government, staff must prove they undertake 30 hours of professional development per year.
Lee Davies, the IfL's deputy chief executive, admits he is concerned about the impact of the pay dispute on professionalism. He recognises why unions use teachers' pay as a benchmark, but he believes colleges must match salaries paid in industry to attract top-quality trainers.
The sector's reliance on part-time lecturers makes it highly unstable, he adds. "A big chunk of part-time staff don't see themselves as professional teachers. They see it as pin money."