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Learning Curve: Fighting back in FE

Stow College DemonstrationFurther Education has been the target of neo-liberal attack in recent years. Mairi NicLeoid looks at the impact this has had and the prospects for fighting back.

The Scottish Funding Council’s announcement a few days before Christmas last year that Further Education Colleges would face cuts in the region of 11% in 2011/12 session came as little surprise to those working in a sector which has long been at the sharp end of the neo-liberal agenda in education.

Scotland’s 41 Further Education colleges have faced waves of cuts, financial crises and industrial unrest for a period stretching back nearly 20 years, to the ‘incorporation’ of colleges in 1993 under the last Conservative government. This moved – part of the breakup of the old regional authorities – took FE colleges out of local government control and placed them in the hands of unelected Boards of Management. By law, over 50% of the Board must be drawn from the business sector – the remainder being made up of the local great and the good from Higher Education and the charity and voluntary sectors, as well as token student, staff and local authority representation. The result has been the creation of 41 personal fiefdoms for Further Education principals – many earning astronomical salaries which outstrip the First Minister and other public figures, and are out of all proportion to the responsibilities they carry.

For lecturers delivering frontline provision, in contrast, incorporation has been a disaster. Taken out of local authority control, Further Education became one of the few areas of the Scottish education system not to benefit from national bargaining, with branch bargaining leading over the years to major discrepancies in wages, terms and conditions within the sector. Following the recent merger of Central College of Commerce, Glasgow Metropolitan College and the Glasgow College of Nautical Studies, for example, staff found themselves on five different sets of terms and conditions – some carried over from the previous Food Tech/Building and Printing merger – with thousands of pounds differential in salary scales, class contact hours varying from a 23 hour maximum up to no maximum at all, and holiday entitlements varying by over 7 days – all in three colleges within a square mile of each other.


Industrial disputes and victimisations have also been rife since 1993, as Principals in certain institutions sought to ride roughshod over collective bargaining procedures and targeted high profile representatives. Several former EIS-FELA Presidents and National Executive members have been forced out of their jobs, most notably Jim O’Donovan at the then Central College of Commerce, where the branch fought a three year campaign to have him reinstated. College managements in colleges such as Aberdeen, Edinburgh’s Telford College and James Watt sought to create a climate of fear and intimidation in their attempts to destroy the union – introducing ‘on the spot’ classroom observations linked to disciplinary procedures; dismissing teaching staff en masse to be replaced by low-paid teaching assistants, and threatening their entire teaching staff with 90 day notices.

Despite this the EIS has remained not only organised but resurgent in many FE branches, with members fighting back and refusing to accept Management threats and intimidation. The question facing trade unionists in the sector now, however, is how to organise and resist the looming cuts, and the threat of attacks which far outweigh those we have seen since 1993. The Scottish Funding Council, the quango responsible for FE and HE funding in Scotland, have already indicated that the average 11% cut to FE funding in 2011/12 is only the beginning, with senior officers at the SFC predicting a cut of up to 25% over the next four years. Brutal attacks on terms and conditions have already begun – most notably at James Watt, with the threat of 100 teaching staff redundancies and the introduction of “flexible working” including no maximum class contact – and we face the real potential of publicly funded educational institutions being allowed to go bankrupt and close – a scenario unimaginable even in the worst excesses of the Thatcher years.

The Invisible Sector

What would this mean to the communities served by Further Education colleges, and what would be the impact upon Scottish society? Many readers of Frontline will be familiar with the work of Scotland’s universities, whose slick PR machines ensure high profile media coverage of the individual and social benefits of Higher Education. Further Education remains the Cinderella sector – overlooked and forgotten, lacking the political clout of the Universities or the emotional tug of the school sector, underlined by the EIS’ anti-cuts slogan “Why should our children pay?”

The main factor in rendering Further Education the ‘invisible’ sector of Scottish education, however, is neither the nature of our work nor the age of the participants, but that old adversary, social class. The majority of FE students have always come from working class backgrounds – from the days when colleges were filled with the apprentices of heavy industry in day release programmes to the tradition of ‘self improvement’ through evening class study. The development of publicly funded Further Education colleges from the 1930s onwards – replacing privately run subscription colleges – represented a boon in working class education, albeit one accessible overwhelmingly only to men.

The mass expansion in post-16 education in the 1960s and 70s saw new colleges built and an increasing trend for college-based training for skilled jobs, while the development of ‘Access’ courses in the 1980s and the expansion of Higher Education – and creation of new Universities in the early 1990s – drew new layers of students into Further Education. Many of these students were mature students who had left school with few or no qualifications but now wished to return to education – many of them working class women for whom entry to University had previously seemed an unattainable fantasy. Further Education colleges were made more accessible by their presence in local communities, but also by an educational philosophy which focused on supporting learners rather than the prestige of the University sector, offering a ‘second chance’ to those who felt that they had missed out at school.

Expanding Sector

Today, the drive for ever-more school leavers to pursue post-16 education has fuelled a further expansion in Further Education, with nearly 400,000 people participating in FE in Scotland, an increase of 88% since 1994/95. Modern Further Education colleges hold an incredibly diverse role within the Scottish education system, providing everything from pre-apprenticeship courses under the school-college partnership through to degree level study. Colleges offer a lifeline to some of the most vulnerable people in Scottish society, offering classes tailored to the needs of adults with mental health problems and learning disabilities; offering English classes to recently arrived asylum seekers and refugees, and offering an alternative to the dole queue for many thousands of school leavers. Students entering on an adult literacy programme can find themselves exiting years later with an HND, and for many, college is literally a life-changing and life-saving experience.

The immediate effect of the funding cuts will be on the cohort of students who would start or continue their studies in 2011/12. The funding cut is not straightforward – they rarely are – but is made up of combination of funding reductions, designed to muddy the waters and protect politicians from public scrutiny in an election year. An overall reduction in funding means that on the face of it, colleges are simply expected to deliver ‘more for less’ – teaching the same number of students but with a significantly reduced resource. Funding for school-college partnerships has been withdrawn, with many colleges withdrawing school-based outreach classes as a result, but perhaps the most insidious cut is the increased leeway for colleges in meeting their student targets, from 2% to 5% from 2011/12. This sounds both complex and innocuous, but means that all of Scotland’s 41 colleges will be allowed to ‘undershoot’ government targets for student numbers by up to 5% without a financial penalty – a move which Scotland’s Colleges, the body representing college managements, estimates will result in the loss of 80,000 college places in August 2011.

Hidden Cuts

This cut has been hidden both by the politicians – who publicly claim that there is no reduction in college places, while shifting blame for the cut to college managements – and by the colleges themselves, who continue to advertise and recruit for August start courses that they cannot afford to run. Students currently on courses are told that August provision is ‘under review’, as Managements seek volunteers for redundancy and look to cut those courses which are expensive to deliver – the practical, skills-based programmes which demand smaller classes or greater resources – the Additional Support Needs programmes, the community-based outreach programmes. Cuts by local authorities, who fund the fee waiver for students on non-advanced programmes such as Access and NC courses, mean that the axe will fall disproportionately on the learners who are traditionally most dependent on Scotland’s Further Education colleges – working class students who have few qualifications from school, and particularly working class women, who will find far fewer opportunities for part time study, less help with childcare, and less community-based provision.

Further Education is changing as a result of the cuts. Reduced numbers of University places and ever-increasing entry demands are dislodging school leavers with handfuls of ‘A’s and ‘B’s at Higher onto HNC programmes in the hope of gaining a foothold in Higher Education, while colleges scramble for the lucrative international student market, with students – particularly from China and South East Asia – paying thousands of pounds in fees for SQA qualifications. It is hard to see who the ‘winners’ will be in this context – teaching staff face ever greater pressure to plug the gaps in the system and deliver ‘more for less’, while learners are forced into debt as they spend longer in the education system, suffering ‘qualification inflation’ when they eventually emerge onto a barren jobs market.

Thousands Lose Out

The losers, however, are all too obvious. Many thousands of school leavers – many with a clutch of qualifications which a few years ago would have carried them into employment or University – will find themselves in August with no place to study, no job – and for those still under 18 – no source of income. The Educational Maintenance Allowance, abolished in England, still provides a lifeline for many 16 and 17 year old students, but it depends on the recipient being in full time education. With colleges cutting the full time non-advanced programmes which attract the majority of these students, many will find themselves with no place and no EMA. No doubt come August the government will blame these “NEETs” for their own predicament – and they will be joined on the dole queues by thousands of adults who might have hoped to retrain and gain new skills after being made redundant.

While the numbers entering Further Education since incorporation in 1993 has been driven ever upwards, Scotland faces a skills gap which will worsen as a result of the cuts. Further Education is driven by a ‘market’ model in which each college is autonomous, not only in its collective bargaining and terms and conditions, but also in its educational provision. Neighbouring colleges compete to recruit students onto identical courses, and as the ‘more for less’ agenda bites, courses deemed too expensive to offer – those which require double staffing, specialist equipment or other practical elements – are often high on the list of cuts. Even by capitalism’s own contradictory standards, its education system is failing.

Organising Resistance

What is also clear is that the major losers in the cuts will be frontline staff – the lecturers who deliver courses, and the often low paid administrative, cleaning and catering staff who support frontline services. The proportion of teaching and non-teaching staff in colleges has skewed remarkably since 1993 – and the largest growth area has been in layer upon layer of management. HR, marketing, international relations and other non-teaching functions previously undertaken centrally by the local authority were devolved to each college, and with this, a disproportionate growth in Assistant Principals, Associate Principals, Depute Principals and Vice Principals in every college in the land. One recent EIS meeting heard reports from nearly 20 colleges of compulsory redundancies among teaching staff – yet everywhere, senior management have been spared.

The anger of teaching and support staff in colleges is real – as is the bitter disappointment of would-be students who are starting to realise that their hopes of education and training will be dashed. But organising the fightback is difficult. Unlike the school and university sectors, branch bargaining means that the EIS cannot legally co-ordinate industrial action – branches are informed of redundancies and attacks on terms and conditions on a piecemeal basis, and left to organise disparate local campaigns. A national day of action on Tuesday 1 March was successful, however, with many smaller and less active EIS branches rising to the occasion, and that unprecedented of wonders – a Further Education story leading the main BBC Scotland news.

The recent EIS-FELA conference voted unanimously to pursue further campaigns including industrial action, and two colleges currently have ballots underway in opposition to compulsory redundancies and attacks on terms and conditions. But we are a relatively small section of the EIS, and such action needs to attract national attention. The recent victory in Renfrewshire over the threat to use unqualified staff to plug gaps and cut costs has shown that collective action – and even the threat of industrial action – can be effective, and it shows also the power of solidarity and support beyond the immediate locality and sector.

Hundreds of thousands of public sector workers in Scotland, from nurses to social workers, civil servants to classroom assistants, started their careers with a course in their local Further Education college. We need the collective support of the entire public sector to say no to education cuts that will affect the most vulnerable young people and adults in our society, and no to Further Education cuts which will be used to set a dangerous precedent – of privatisation, union-busting and cost-driven delivery – which will damage the interests of the schools sector, the universities and the wider economy alike.