Further education workers on strike at Leeds City College earlier in 2023, photo Iain Dalton
Further education workers on strike at Leeds City College earlier in 2023, photo Iain Dalton

Duncan Moore, Plymouth Socialist Party and UCU member, personal capacity

University and College Union (UCU) members in 32 further education (FE) colleges across England have voted to strike over pay and conditions. This builds on the action taken last year by 26 colleges, and points the way to an aggregate ballot of all FE staff in the near future.

90% of UCU members who voted in the ballot favoured strike action; however at 43 colleges, the turnout did not meet the legal 50% minimum threshold required by the Tories’ anti-democratic 2016 Trade Union Act.

Members at 13 colleges have voted to settle their disputes, after college principals offered pay rises of 6.5% or above. This is in line with the pay deal National Education Union (NEU) members accepted from the government in August, following the recommendation of their union’s National Executive Committee.

Socialist Party members in the NEU campaigned to reject the 6.5% pay deal for school staff and to press ahead for more, to address the 20% cut in real wages since 2010, as well as for full funding.

FE staff have faced an even steeper collapse in real wages – losing over 30% since 2018. A UCU survey of college staff shows that 96% are struggling financially because of low wages, with four in five survey respondents saying their financial situation is impacting their mental health. It shows that many staff have to use foodbanks and ration hot water and heating because their pay is so low. Yet UCU research has found that 26 college principals received pay rises of over 10% in 2021-22 and one principal’s total package rose to over £360,000!

Low pay across the sector has created a huge crisis in recruitment and retention. There are now 24,000 fewer college lecturers than there were in 2009, leading to unmanageable workloads. FE staff on average work two days for free each week. A 6.5% pay increase does not come anywhere near what is needed in this situation.

Socialist Party members in the UCU support the union’s demand for a 15.4% increase, as well as for binding national agreements on pay and workloads.

Colleges are set to receive an additional £500 million in funding for students aged 16-19. We have to fight for full national funding so that no college management can claim they cannot afford to increase pay. Any college that says it can’t afford a 6.5%+ pay rise should back the union fighting for full funding.

However, to make sure this money goes to FE staff, rather than CEOs, we need a fighting leadership. UCU members in Higher Education (HE) have won a victory on pensions, but in the HE pay battle the campaign has been fraught with delays and retreats from the national leadership. Lessons must be learned in FE: we need a clear and escalating strategy that builds confidence and strengthens the union, so that we can win. 

National executive and general secretary elections are scheduled to start on 9 November. UCU members have an opportunity to vote for an NEC which will fight for them, and a general secretary who will serve that NEC and give us the leadership we need.

  • Duncan is seeking nomination to stand for a Further Education seat on the NEC