AWAY FROM THE media spotlight sixth- form and further education (FE) colleges have suffered some of the past decade’s most drastic cuts. Since 2010 the Con- Dem coalition and Tory governments have squeezed the sector relentlessly, pressurising institutions to merge. In addition, lecturers and support staff in the sector have seen the dramatic erosion of their real pay, down by 23.6% - worse than for the public sector workforce generally.
While some senior managers have reaped substantial rewards, there’s little doubt that a number of institutions are in dire financial straits. Predictably, principals are demanding that staff and students bear the cost of balancing the books. At Hull Community College - with sites in Hull itself, and the towns of Goole and Harrogate - management has responded to a £10 million funding gap with a threat to eliminate over 230 lecturing and support posts, amounting to a third of the total workforce. The college’s management has also announced its intention to impose new contracts.
In response both the University and College Union (UCU) and Unison, the largest support staff union, have launched strike ballots with the UCU vote due to conclude on 18th April.
Meanwhile, the UCU has announced ballots at two other Yorkshire colleges, Bradford and Kirklees. At Bradford, college management has announced plans to scrap 75 posts after receiving a ‘financial notice to improve’, the second in five months, from the FE commissioner. At Kirklees a proposed restructure threatens 52 posts. At both colleges the ballots will run until 3rd May. Elsewhere, UCU members, concentrated in London, have taken part in two rounds of strike action in opposition to still another real pay cut. The most recent walkouts in late March involved Sandwell College in the Black Country and six in the capital.
UCU officers at Westminster Kingsway College, now part of the Capital City College Group, reported unprecedented levels of support for the March strikes with up to 35 pickets at the main King’s Cross site and dozens of lecturers joining or re-joining the union.
The resistance has secured improved offers at some colleges, but it’s also clear to activists that a more sustained, militant campaign is essential to halt attacks on this Cinderella sector.