Legal threat in college pay protest

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The Independent Online
Students on teacher-training courses could be able to sue their universities if a planned boycott of inspections by lecturing unions means departments lose accreditation.

Union members in university education departments agreed yesterday to continue their disruption of inspections in protest over pay, which has already affected at least three teacher-training institutions.

The Association of University Teachers (AUT), whose members voted for the action in October, also acknowledged the boycott could ultimately leave the door open for trainee teachers to take legal action against their departments.

Ofsted, the schools watchdog which also inspects university education departments and teacher-training colleges on behalf of the Teacher Training Agency, would be unable to report back on its findings to the agency.

The TTA might then decide to hold back funding from those departments and, possibly, also to withdraw accreditation. Students who applied to an institution, only to find its accreditation withdrawn during their course, might have grounds to sue.

The decision to continue blocking inspections puts the education departments in direct confrontation with Ofsted, which yesterday reinforced its bullish line on the stand-off.

A spokesman said: "We have a duty to inspect teacher-training colleges wherever we can. We cannot guarantee to reschedule inspections and thus we might not be able to give the reports to the Teacher Training Agency that it needs for its work."

The TTA passed responsibility back to Ofsted, saying the agency had a legal responsibility to go into departments and secure information. However, it stressed that withdrawal of accreditation happened only as a last resort at the end of a long process.

Tom Wilson, AUT assistant general secretary, said it was "most unlikely that any meaningful form of inspection would now take place".

The possibility of legal action by students might come "some way down the line", he said, though any attempt by the TTA to withdraw accreditation would be strongly resisted by the union. Students on this year's courses would not be affected.

The AUT is due to meet with employers today together with the conciliation service Acas in an attempt to resolve the dispute.

However, it is already preparing to ballot members on taking further action in the pay campaign, including disrupting university admissions and examinations next year.

An admissions boycott would affect around 250,000 school-leavers hoping to enter higher education next autumn.

The university pay dispute involves a cross-section of staff from porters to professors. White-collar staff, including academics, administrators and technicians, have been offered a 1.5 per cent pay rise, while manual workers have been offered 2.5 per cent.

The dispute prompted a 24-hour strike last month by around 100,000 employees last month, bringing British universities almost to a standstill.