Mark Harding, a lecturer and UCU member in London, looks at the uncertain future of the further education sector and the Tuesday 10 November strike in colleges in England.
Lecturers working in further education colleges in England are to strike on Tuesday 10 November for their UCU union’s demand of £1 an hour extra pay for all members. Stagnant pay is a major concern for members who have seen their living standards decline over the last few years due to a pay freeze while inflation has risen.
However, this strike is about much more than pay – it is a sign of the growing concern of the workforce about the future of the crucial sector that we work in. The Tories have viewed further education as an easy target for huge cuts in the last few months, as hitting colleges unfortunately does not have the same emotional resonance as cuts to school budgets would have among the wider public.
Further education is a sector that has enabled hundreds of thousands of working class students, myself included, to access education at a number of levels after they failed in, or failed to fit into, the school system. It is a sector that has helped hundreds of thousands of migrants develop their English, and their confidence, so that they can communicate better and find work in this country – a sector that has helped millions of people develop and progress in life.
The Tories had already shown their disdain for further education and lifelong learning by imposing a 25 percent cut on the adult education budget before the general election. They then took away another 4 percent of that in July, while also removing funding for Jobcentre Plus mandated Esol (English for speakers of other languages classes).
These cuts have already led to a swathe of redundancies and loss of provision across colleges. Senior managements are currently wielding the government’s scythe against Esol classes and teachers. Worse is yet to be announced in George Osbourne’s autumn statement on 25 November. There is little prospect of public funding of education for those over 19 remaining in place after 2020 if this government is not challenged. The Tory message seems to be that you can have lifelong learning if you can afford to pay for it or are willing to get into debt to pay for it through the new loan systems.
The government does have a plan for the future of further education, but it will not reassure anyone who cares about the sector. It has launched a series of area reviews, which will see further education and sixth form colleges dragooned together in the next 18 months and sooner to discuss the needs of education provision in their areas. This will inevitably lead to the merger of a whole host of very different institutions, leading to a reduction in the overall provision being offered and an even larger swathe of job losses. The government guidance on area reviews admits that this “is likely to result in rationalised curriculum: fewer, larger and more financially resilient organisations”. These organisations are likely to be more focused on apprenticeships and businesses as part of the government’s new network of Institutes of Technology and National Colleges, which would seem to be a narrowing of the far broader remit that further education and sixth form colleges have had. Activists in further education are planning to launch a national campaign to save further education and oppose the area reviews, which will be a major step forward.
In this context it is clear why the 10 November strike is so important. A strong, active turnout by UCU members with powerful picket lines will send a clear message that there is a force that wants respect and dignity at work. It will show that there is a workforce that is also willing to stand up for the kind of education young people and adults need and want, and not one imposed by government and business.