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Inside the years-long pay row in Scotland risking the futures of working-class students

In the last 20 years, the further education sector has contracted in the face of persistent underfunding, leaving students stranded

Image: Craig Brown / Alamy Live News Illustration: Big Issue

An ongoing row over pay and funding for further education (FE) lecturers across Scotland is having a significant impact on students’ futures through a huge loss in teaching hours and marks not being registered. Amid a once-in-a-generation cost of living crisis, lecturers have not had a pay rise since 2021. But those at the heart of the industrial action say this is not just a fight for pay, but for the future of education in working-class communities.

“FE was always the place for working-class kids to go, people who maybe wouldn’t consider university as a first step, or who need good training to get a better job,” says English and Spanish lecturer Paula Dixon, speaking to Big Issue from the picket line of Glasgow Clyde College’s Anniesland campus in late June. “But year on year they’re cutting the funding.”

Dixon has been working at Glasgow Clyde College for more than two decades and now represents her colleagues as branch secretary for the Educational Institute of Scotland – Further Education Lecturers’ Association (EIS-FELA). In the last 20 years, she’s seen the FE sector contract in the face of persistent underfunding. Courses have been cut and jobs lost for lecturers and support staff. “The difference is unreal,” she says.

Like most people who contributed to this article, Dixon sees FE as a “Cinderella sector”, overlooked by politicians in favour of both schools and universities. According to official figures, funding per full-time student in 2022/23 was £5,054 per year at FE colleges, compared to £7,558 at universities and £7,657 at secondary schools. College leaders – most of whom are paid more than £100,000 – have been too willing to let it happen, she argues.

This is not just a problem in Scotland. Research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) in December 2023 found a “long historical pattern [across the UK] where further education receives the smallest increases when overall spending rises and the largest cuts when governments are looking to reduce spending”. The number of adult learners in England has plummeted by 47% since 2010, according to a study by the Learning and Work Institute, as the government cut per-person funding by 28%.

The IFS also warned that Labour and other major parties had been “silent on the inevitability of cuts” in spending plans during the general election, with further education identified as being on the chopping block and unlikely to be protected from cuts. It also comes as some universities have reportedly explored axing arts and humanities courses such as anthropology in a bid to save money, with others like Goldsmiths, University of London looking at sacking at least one in six academic staff.

‘A lot of further education lecturers can’t pay the bills’

The current pay dispute for FE lecturers in Scotland started in November 2022, when College Employers Scotland (CES), the national body for colleges as employers, tabled a 2% annual salary increase offer. That month, inflation was sitting at over 13%. EIS-FELA rejected the offer.

After 18 months of negotiations, the offer from CES now sits at £5,000 over three years. This represents an 11.5% pay increase for most lecturing staff in the sector by the end of the three-year period. But it will be a real-terms pay cut, says EIS-FELA, since prices have already risen by more than 10.4% since negotiations began. FE lecturers’ pay increases would also lag behind other groups of public sector workers – including police officers, firefighters, NHS workers and school teachers.  

Gavin Donoghue, director of CES, says colleges are “determined to reach a lecturer pay settlement that is fair and affordable, and which supports our staff as we emerge from the cost of living crisis”. But, he adds, the sector is facing “exceptionally difficult and deteriorating financial circumstances, with an 8.5% real-terms cut in government funding since 2021/22 and a further cash cut of £32.7 million in the Scottish government’s budget for 2024/25”.

“Employers cannot afford to go beyond it,” he says.

Dixon remains unimpressed. “A lot of us can’t pay the bills,” she explains. “I’ve got three jobs, I work in here full time, so 35 hours during the day. Then I do a night class. I’ve had to take on private work, I also do SQA (Scottish Qualifications Authority) marking and I’m still not able to pay the bills.”

As industrial action has ramped up, her employers’ union-busting tactics have got more aggressive, she says. In response to EIS-FELA’s ‘resulting boycott’ (in which lecturers agree to continue teaching, marking and completing the rest of their work but refuse to enter students’ results into the official systems), some colleges have started ‘deeming’ staff pay – withholding up to 100% of salaries from staff taking industrial action short of strike.

“It is scary,” admits Dixon. “It’s meant to be scary. I’ve had a few sleepless nights, but we’ll get through it because they need to find a solution. We need to get back into work, doing our job teaching the students.”

CES defends the decision of colleges to deem staff pay, saying they are “unashamedly seeking to protect the interests of their students”. While results information is still being gathered for this year’s students, the impact of EIS-FELA’s resulting boycott is understood to be significant.

Some students say they ‘support the striking lecturers 100%’

Ryan Donachie is one of the students whose education has been hit by the strikes. “We’ve lost a significant number of teaching hours,” he says. “But I am fully clear on where I stand. I
support the lecturers 100%. My lecturers and the support staff in the college have supported me through some incredibly difficult times.”

He returned to education at Glasgow Kelvin College this year as a mature student, after having to leave his job in the ambulance service following a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder. This year he has been studying a pathways course in humanities with the view to continuing into a degree course. Donachie plans to continue fighting for FE.

“I come from a working-class background. I’m disabled. I would never have been able to go back to education and on to university if I didn’t go through college,” he says. “Colleges genuinely are a significant route out of poverty for many people in Scotland. They’re also great for widening access to education.”

Like Donachie, Sher Khalid-Ali didn’t think she would ever have the chance to go back to education after leaving school at 15 with no qualifications. “I was unemployed for a long time,” she says. “My life did a 180 when I went back to education.”

Khalid-Ali finished an access course at New College Lanarkshire in June last year, but her final course marks were not registered by her lecturers, so she feared she may miss out on her university place. She was staunch in her support for the strike action. “None of them want to be taking this action. Obviously they are striking for pay, but they’re also striking against massive cuts to contact time and courses.”

An agreement was finally reached whereby universities accepted partial marks from some students, and Khalid-Ali is now studying social sciences at University of Stirling. She continues to be active with Student Action, a group set up to support FE lecturers.

“This matters so much to me because it literally saved my life – and I’m not a one off,” she explains. “Of the girls that went to uni from my class – you’re talking single parents, people who have had mental health issues, ex-drug addicts. These are people whose lives have been completely changed, and that’s just one class in one college. So when you imagine the actual impact of colleges on the wider community, it’s just incredible to me that they’re so under-appreciated and so under-funded.”

Scottish colleges have now finished for the summer, so the picket lines will pack up for a while. EIS-FELA members are being balloted over a pay offer that would add a 3% pay increase to the fourth year of the “full and final” CES offer. For now, the fight goes on.

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