UCU members at 16 further education colleges will down tools in 2019 in response to a 25 percent pay cut over the last decade. Last year, workers at 10 colleges struck over pay, and they will be joined by colleagues at six further institutions this year for another round of action.

A whopping 89 percent of UCU members in the FE sector (which mostly caters to adult learners and students from poorer backgrounds, compared with Higher Education) supported strike action in a ballot conducted in December, showing a very strong will to fight – although anti-worker government policy has prevented many workers from joining the action.

The Tories brutalise FE

Further Education has long been regarded as a soft target for austerity by the government. It has seen its funding fall by a fifth since 2010 and was identified as the “biggest loser” in terms of cuts by the Institute of Fiscal Studies’ 2018 report.

The biggest losers of all are frontline staff, and the predominantly poor and working-class students who rely on the further education sector. Aside from pay cuts across the board, the chronic underfunding of FE colleges and sixth-forms has resulted in a raft of closures, and under-provision for colleges that remain.

Freya Ruparel, a 17-year-old who attends Henley College, commented on the effect of funding cuts:

“My teachers can’t print out summary sheets. We have fewer computers in the room. You can bring in portable devices in but most people do not have the money for this.”

Kitty Howarth, who works at Nottingham College, added:

“The funding cuts are really affecting the quality of teaching that we can give. The infrastructure is crumbling. Computers are 16 years old.”

Jeremy Corbyn has rightly branded the Tories’ treatment of FE colleges “disgraceful”, and the Labour Party released research last year suggesting that funding for further education (FE) and skills has been cut by more than £3bn since 2010.

Insults and hypocrisy from the bosses

Of course, the burden of austerity has not been borne evenly. College bosses have used Tory policy as an excuse to oversee massive pay cuts for teachers, while principals of large colleges continue to net up to £200,000 a year. For instance, Vision West Nottinghamshire College’s principal was paid £275,000 in 2015/16.

Disgracefully, college principals have actually seen their wages increase on average over the past decade as workers’ pay slides – mirroring the situation in HE colleges, where vice-chancellors’ wages have also ballooned in tandem with falling pay for teaching staff.

The latest round of strikes came after the bosses’ organisation, the Association of Colleges (AoC), made an insulting offer of a 1 percent pay increase for the coming year: about half the current inflation rate, and thus another cut in real terms.

Tory Trade Union Act stifles right to strike

Unfortunately, despite a strong desire for strike action across the country, the Tories’ draconian Trade Union Act (which sets a 50 percent threshold of eligible staff for legal strike action to take place) has meant the majority of FE college workers will be unable to strike. As a UCU national rep commented in a press release:

“More colleges would be facing strikes if it was not for the anti-trade union laws introduced by this government. These laws curtail people’s democratic right to strike in a manner that is not used in any other part of society.”

Despite these obstacles, it is imperative that university workers continue to fight for their interests – with the full solidarity of students and workers from across the sector and beyond. The fact that six additional colleges were able to meet the ballot threshold underlines the need for a very strong, national mobilisation by the UCU to boost union membership in this vulnerable and under-represented sector, and bring as many workers into the fight as possible.

Ultimately, the disgusting Tory government and the ailing capitalist system it represents are the source of the education sector’s dire straits, and conspire to deny workers the right to organise and struggle for better treatment. Only maximum solidarity across the whole working class can overcome this system and provide free, high quality education for all under a socialist society.

Victory to college workers! Against the bosses and the Tory government!

by Joe Attard

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