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In the news 3 May 2019

Strikes and ballots at London colleges this week

UCU members at Lambeth College and New City College took three days' strike action this week as ballots opened at Croydon and Hackney colleges in a row over pay and conditions. The latest strikes are parts of waves of action across England this academic year in protest at colleges' failure to make a decent pay offer to staff who have seen the value of their pay decline by 25% over the last decade.

UCU said if the colleges wanted to avoid further disruption they should follow the likes of Capital City College Group and Hugh Baird College who recently agreed pay deals with the union.

UCU head of further education Andrew Harden said: 'Strike action is always a last resort, but unless colleges prioritise their staff they will face disruption. It is not acceptable for colleges to say finances are tight and nothing can be done. Other colleges have shown what can be achieved when they engage seriously with us on pay and conditions.'


UCU warns of further disruption as figures reveal falling pay

The strikes and ballots in London took place as it was revealed that pay in further education has dropped. According to data released by the Education and Training Foundation (ETF) there has been a "decrease in median teacher pay across all providers", from £31,800 in 2016-17 to £31,600 in 2017-18.

The ETF's annual workforce data report analysed the 2017-18 Staff Individualised Record (SIR) returns and also showed an increase in casual employment in further education. The proportion of casual staff increased from 7.4 per cent to 9.9 per cent, and the number of zero-hours contracts in the data increased from 3,323 to 3,501.

Speaking to Tes, UCU head of further education Andrew Harden said: 'These figures lift the lid on the falling pay and lack of job security staff have to contend with and demonstrate why we have seen waves of action at colleges across England this year. It is not enough for colleges to say they cannot do anything to address poor pay and conditions.'


Latest higher education pay offer doesn't deal with problems

The final round of higher education pay talks took place on Tuesday. The Universities and Colleges Employers Association (Ucea) came back with a slightly improved headline offer of 1.8 % for UCU members. Ucea only made a limited offer of joint work on gender pay and precarious contracts and nothing meaningful on workload. UCU's negotiators expressed their disappointment with the offer and confirmed it will be considered by the higher education sector conference at the end of the month.
Speaking to Times Higher Education, UCU head of higher education Paul Bridge said: 'The pay claim has a "keep up and catch up" element to addresses the years of wage suppression which has seen the value of staff pay in higher education fall by 20% in real terms.

'This latest offer does not adequately address that problem, nor does it reflect the higher increases in the cost of living shown by other measures of inflation. It also fails to commit to meaningful action on the gender pay gap, casualisation and workloads.

'Our negotiators will report back to branches and the offer, and next steps, will be discussed at the higher education sector conference as part of our annual congress at the end of the month.'


Fury over Edinburgh job ad without summer pay

The higher education community has hit out at a job advertisement for a teaching fellow at the University of Edinburgh that offers no pay over the summer. Times Higher Education said the original advertisement said the "post will be pay suspended during the months of July and August 2020 when no work will be available" and that it was subsequently amended to say that "for the months of July and August working hours will be zero" and that "salary is calculated on an annualised basis and paid in 12 equal monthly instalments initially".

Grant Buttars, president of UCU's Edinburgh branch, said that the job advert should be removed and that Edinburgh should "ensure all posts are properly remunerated". Speaking to the Scotsman, UCU Scotland official Mary Senior said: 'Looking to penny pinch by refusing to pay staff properly sends a terrible message and displays a disregard for what the job entails and the work staff would engage in over the summer.'


Union slams decision to sell off Stourbridge College

UCU has slammed the decision by Birmingham Metropolitan College (BMet) to sell off Stourbridge College, saying students and staff were paying the price for poor management. The plan to sell off the college, which merged with BMet in 2013, was revealed yesterday evening following a recommendation by the FE Commissioner.

The decision will affect hundreds of staff and students, but UCU said that there had been no meaningful consultation about the move with the local community, staff or students. The union also said the plan made little financial sense, as the college had recently spent millions refurbishing the Hagley Road campus.

Speaking to FE Week, UCU regional support official Teresa Corr said: 'Staff, students and the local community are paying a high price for years of poor management. There has been a total lack of meaningful consultation with the hundreds of staff and students that will be affected, many of whom will be forced to travel to other colleges. We call on the college to halt these plans and consult properly with everyone affected, as well as committing to no compulsory redundancies for staff.'


Universities must take action to narrow BAME attainment gap

Narrowing the "degree gap" between black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) students and their white peers requires a cultural change among British universities and their leaders, according to a report from the National Union of Students and Universities UK.

The Guardian said that despite the rapid increase in the number of BAME students in the past decade, 71% of Asian students and just 57% of black students gained an upper second or first in their undergraduate degree, compared with 81% of white students. Black students were estimated to be one and a half times more likely to drop out than white or Asian students.

The report's call for vice-chancellors to show "strong leadership" to close the gap echoes the findings of a UCU report from September that called for senior staff to work harder on race quality.


Social Mobility Commission report highlights damage done by grant cuts

On Tuesday UCU welcomed a call from the Social Mobility Commission to improve funding for students, especially those from the poorest backgrounds. In its State of the Nation report, the commission said social mobility had been stagnant since 2014.

UCU acting general secretary Paul Cottrell said: 'The government's decisions to cut the Education Maintenance Allowance and university maintenance grants were pernicious moves that hit students who most needed support to stay on and get on in education the hardest.

'We welcome the call from the Social Mobility Commission for greater support for education and the vital role it must be allowed to play if we are to improve social mobility. Education can only play its crucial role in improving people's life chances if it gets proper government funding and support.'


UCU says radical alternatives needed in review of education funding

UCU said yesterday that the government needed to do more than tinker with the current system if it wants to make serious changes to education funding. The union said abolishing fees could be achieved if ministers reversed cuts to corporation tax.

The union was responding to a report from the Education Policy Institute (EPI) that looked at proposals being debated since the government launched a review of education funding following fears its current system had become politically toxic.

UCU acting general secretary Paul Cottrell said: 'We welcome the EPI report's focus on making studying easier for part-time and mature students. We are pleased the report rejects some of the proposals that have been trialled in the press. We do not agree that the cost of abolishing fees means that the government should reject the idea. Education is worth investing in and we need to develop a system that ensures big business finally pay its fair share.'


UCU calls for greater use of contextual data in university admissions

Responding to a report on university admissions from the Office for Students (OfS) on Wednesday, UCU said greater emphasis was needed on the context in which exam results are achieved and not just the results themselves. 

The OfS found that students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds are 15 times less likely to enter the most selective universities than their peers from the most advantaged backgrounds. The Guardian picked up on UCU's call for a complete overhaul of university admissions.

Paul Cottrell said: 'Greater and better use of the context in which exam results are achieved is needed if we want to make access to university fairer. Not all exam achievements are equal and universities should not treat them as such. There needs to be much greater use of contextual data so that students progress according to their achievements and potential.'


Threats to increase EU students' fees

Over the weekend Buzzfeed ran a story saying that future EU students at universities in England will no longer have the right to pay the same tuition fees as home students, in "highly controversial plans being drawn up by the government". UCU said the plans, coupled with the government's chaotic handling of Brexit, would "send a clear message to the world that Britain is pulling up the drawbridge for international students".

Education Secretary Damian Hinds refused to comment on the speculation when appearing on the Today programme to talk about the Social Mobility Commission's report on Tuesday and the BBC reported that universities minister Chris Skidmore also refused to rule out a rise in the House of Commons. Meanwhile, the Independent reported that the prime minister told MPs that UK students shouldn't worry about prices going up in the EU as they shouldn't want to study anywhere else anyway.

Criticising an increase in fees in the Financial Times, Miranda Green quoted Jonathan Simons who has worked in both Downing Street and the education department and believes the proposal is a "short-sighted, vindictive, counterproductive, unpopular and unsustainable move which runs contrary to the vision of Britain we should be setting".


The unlikely issue of overeducation

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) provocatively suggested this week that around a third of graduates were "overeducated". The Guardian said the ONS data found that students of the arts, biology and humanities the most likely to be overeducated with London having the highest proportion of overeducated workers in the UK. The data said that 31% of graduates had more education than was required for the work they were doing in 2017. That included 22% of those who graduated before 1992 and 34% of those who graduated in 2007 or later.

It prompted a predictably strong defence of education on the letters page. One reader told the paper that had she been evaluated 10 years after graduation, having taken time out to have children, she would have seemed overqualified. She said that education was for life, not just for employment, and no education is ever too much. 

Last updated: 16 March 2021