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Report from Barry Lovejoy, National Head of Further Education

Delivered to UCU FE Sector Conference, 28 May 2013

Good morning and welcome colleagues.

Yet again  we have a fine turn out of activists, branch officers and reps - many here for the first time. This reflects the fact that the union remains an active campaigning union despite the massive attacks and challenges we face in our sectors. FE, prisons and adult education in England Wales and Northern Ireland.

This year marks the 20 year anniversary of incorporation of FE in England. The AoC are holding a reception soon which is a celebration of Incorporation - Anyone think it  merits much celebration?  

Do not worry I do not intend to run the good old days or all our yesterdays but it's worth reflecting on what it has meant and continues to mean

Initiated by the Tories, heralded by senior staff (who gained significantly in salaries and power) and disgracefully continued with gusto by New Labour the sector, pulled out of local authority control - has been a test bed for many other areas of the public sector - a strategy based on the replacement of the principle of an accountable planned public service  with  a competitive, unaccountable market driven free for all.

I see no evidence that it improves efficiency -on the contrary - It has involved sheer wastage of time and resources through the duplication of personnel, finance and marketing activities.

If there is one feature that dominates its instability. Collaboration and mergers emerge more as survival packages  in the roller coaster funding regimes  - not rationally planned exercises to meet local demands but desperate rescue plans that have often involved much pain and anguish for all concerned.

It is my sincere belief that improvements to the learners experience that have been achieved has been despite incorporation - a result more of the commitment of staff  who continue to perform daily miracles against the odds. 

And why do I stress this? - because now we  now  face another new stage , super incorporation - more freedoms for colleges to change instruments of government, merge or set up new independent companies   with the minimum of public accountability or transparency. This again is welcomed by senior management and their lobby groups - AoC and 157. There is no doubt perhaps that such changes make it much easier to duck and dive for survival in the ever shrinking and changing funding regime -  but at what long term cost? I don't know about you but It seems to me that in embracing this approach in the panic to survive we are witnessing a potential race to the bottom. - Who can do the business cheapest?

 And let us say clearly one thing loud and clear -. Whether it is dressed up in the language of shared services and greater institutional freedom or pseudo liberal language from those in organisations called bizarre animal names -  Private equity and For profit activity  have no place in FE or any other public service!

Of course a key feature of incorporation and its new manifestations is to create the environment for government and employers to weaken bargaining arrangements and worsen pay and conditions for staff. There is no doubt that the last 20 years has seen an erosion of pay and conditions of service for FE staff - its not necessary to take our word for it - read the Lingfield Report - and our stress surveys continue to show the human impact of the situation.

And the response from our employers? Under pressure from Oftsed-led by Gove's attack dog Willshaw we see that very enlightened H.R the beatings continue until morale and achievement improves.  

So we see employers increasingly  rushing to capability procedures rather than development and support. Grade 3 or 4 -  the punishment block for you ! A simplistic misguided  approach with potentially appalling consequences for  staff health and morale and inevitably  having a long term adverse affect on quality .   

Colleagues we all know here what it's like to work in our sectors and the immense challenges we face.

It's important over the next couple of days that we take the opportunity to highlight  the reality. But more importantly I think you have travelled here not to moan about our plight but to share experiences and discuss how this union can organise to continue to make a difference in the face of attacks.

I stress the word continue to make a difference because I am in no doubt that if we had not done so over the last 20 years - we would be in no position to be meeting today let alone preparing ourselves for the battles ahead.

So some examples:

Despite relentless attempts locally and nationally to marginalise us and the constant need to defend union negotiated contracts and agreements they continue in the vast number of colleges and institutions.

We retain a common  contract across Northern Ireland and I am confident that we are within a hair breadth of achieving this in Wales. Its been a long struggle and there is a still the possibility here of industrial action but lets congratulate the region on progress and in particular the tenacious work of the regional official Margaret Phelan.

And I am sure that delegates in prison education will recognise that against the odds UCU continues to improve its organisation and influence in this fragmented and semi privatised sector. This is down to hard working reps but I would also like to high light the tremendous work carried out by the national official Christiane Ohsan - please show your appreciation for her long standing work in this sector and indeed adult and community education.    

Continuing with important achievements Let's not forget that the two year pay rise we achieved in 2003 with the new pay scales for England has been a very important gain for thousands of lecturers. We are of course now engaged in defending this gain but  god knows what pay would have been if we had not achieved these benchmarks. 
The major activity of our union focuses at the day to day local level both collective and individual and yes, in the vast majority of cases, we remain effective and make a difference. Major defeats can be counted on one hand and year after year month after month sees the union achieve satisfactory resolutions to disputes and individual casework.

There are far too many instances to quote and I do not wish to ignore any but for example:

Every dispute we have so far pursued on lesson observation has achieved agreement 
Despite the relentless attack on jobs - in most cases the we have avoided compulsory redundancies. 
And where conditions have been attacked  we have prevented the worst excesses. 
20 years of Incorporation and the current slashing of funds for is nothing to celebrate but the work of our reps and activists is - let's do that !

And let's also show your appreciation for the hard working regional staff.

I would also like you to show your appreciation to Dan Taubman - who has done tremendous work for this union over the last 19 years. Providing invaluable information and policy development for our work. Dan is retiring later this year.

And why should we highlight our achievements and activity? Well very simply to attract and retain members. You all know that this is by far the biggest challenge that we face today in order to maintain our organisation.

People join unions not to protest at how bad things are (although do not get me wrong protest is essential) but if they think it will make a difference. We do make a difference so let's not be shy about it - shout about it from the roof tops.

I agree with people who say that the union must be active to succeed and recruit members.  We are an active union and we must stay one.

While activity is not restricted to industrial action - it is worth noting that we took more industrial action from May last year to the end of last month than we did in the previous same 12 months period So we are hardly a passive organisation. 

We have  very significant threats and challenges to face in the coming year. Already we are seeing yet a further wave of attacks on jobs pay and working conditions - it's relentless but this union must and will continue to stand firm. Local ballots for industrial action are being launched  at Kirklees. Grimsby     - lets show them support and wish good luck.  
And we are awaiting a ballot result from Chesterfield college - which I am sure will give a big yes vote for strike action over redundancies.

In this environment our push on tackling excessive workloads becomes essential. Targets have been selected in all regions to establish good practice. We have been making steady progress on getting England employers to commit to using the national agreement. There is a long way to go but we have made a respectable start ensuring that it's an issue on the bargaining agenda in increasing numbers of colleges and a hook to mount campaigns in the future. 
Finally conference I must of course turn to the sorry state of the current pay negotiations in England. Last year I was quoted in the press as being gobsmacked at employers antics - this year to honest I was speechless but very worried. indeed as to the possible consequences for future national bargaining on pay. Lets be clear the employers knew from the very start of talks that the strings  that they are proposing were totally unacceptable to the trade unions and are unnecessary anyway.  National agreements should be about establishing good practice and pay increases not  giving green lights or rubber stamping to performance based pay or freezing of scales.

The aoc say that they wish to continue to make national pay recommendations but in taking their ball home in a fit of pique they risk sleepwalking into the end of national bargaining. It may be worse  a deliberate sabotage. But whichever it is - employers think again - if you think ending national baragining is an easy option then beware - Yes we want and will fight for it but be clear - this union will organise, fight and bargain for its members wherever the employers are organised.

Chair and Conference I look forward to the debate . I am sure there will unanimity around most of the important issues. I will have no more say in the debates that follow but   I will say that whilst it is important and necessary to confirm and clarify out policies - the vital task comes after. We must recruit convince and mobilise our members.

Thank you

Last updated: 29 May 2013