“If pay keeps getting cut and eroded, we won’t get lecturers into the sector. It’s not about us. It’s about the future quality of education.” says Peter Jones, a college lecturer and EIS-FELA Secretary for Fife College.
Five out of the six years since the start of national bargaining – where lecturers bargain nationally around pay – college lecturers have had to strike for even a modest pay rise. Colleges Scotland, the employers’ organisation representing Scottish colleges, have shown a general unwillingness to negotiate over pay let alone offer acceptable pay rises. This year, history is repeating itself. EIS-FELA, the union that represents college lecturers, says that “words of gratitude, and a pay offer that does not begin to address the pressures on the cost of living, are not enough.”
Like almost every other group of workers, college lecturers are feeling the pinch of the cost-of-living crisis. They have joined other unions who are either on strike or planning to strike against dismal pay awards on offer from many employers. The anger of college lecturers can be felt in the strength of turnout for their strike ballot. They managed to smash the restrictive thresholds set by Tory anti trade union laws: over 70 % of EIS-FELA members indicated they would be willing to take strike action and over 80% indicated they would be willing to take action short of a strike.
Lynn Davis, another lecturer, and the EIS-FELA Convener at Fife College, said that the pay rise was clearly not enough with the “cost of energy going up through the roof.” The offer is even more is frustrating when compared to pay rises for management. The Principal of Fife College got an award of around 3%, taking their pay and pension to roughly £160K, in line with that of Nicola Sturgeon. The double standards over management pay are even more striking when considering that college management continue, as Pete says, to act like “spoilt kids” and have been refusing to “return to the negotiating table.”
However, as both Lynn and Pete stated, this strike is about more than the exorbitant increase in the cost of living. It is also about the future of education. They both want to secure the future of Scottish further education and make sure that these jobs continue to be attractive so that students receive the highest quality education. Pete explained that if these derisory pay offers continue then “the quality of education will drop.”
In this context, it’s truly admirable that lecturers are willing to take action to defend the very principle of high-quality education. It’s clear looking through the history books they have a track record of doing this. Pete recounted how they went out on strike last year over introduction of instructors and won new contracts. This means that teaching is kept at the highest possible standard and skilled jobs remain within the sector, which, Pete argues, will ensure they are “future proofed in the sector.”
For this reason, Lynn and Pete spoke about the overwhelming support that the strike has received both within and out with the colleges. Lynn says that this support has its roots in the Covid-19 pandemic. She said that lecturers during the pandemic felt “on their own – isolated and lonely.” However, because management were distant and “there was no other support, support came from being part of the union.” This solidarity has manifested itself in what Pete called a “a quiet determination and resolve” to win this strike. On the picket line it was hard to miss the fact that spirits seemed high and as Lynn said, “morale is good, and everyone is supportive of each other.”
But it isn’t only lecturers supporting each other within the colleges. Pete said that all “lecturers are getting support from their students” and that many of them have been “coming up and asking questions and supporting” the strike. Lynn believes this is because many of the students see lecturers working well beyond their contracted hours. It’s not difficult to see the impact of this. A recent EIS-FELA survey indicated that EIS survey showing their “members experiencing rising levels of stress and workload, while many college lecturers have received no wellbeing check in from their employers.”
At the picket line outside the Halbeath Campus of Fife College drivers honked their horns in support of the strike. It’s not hard to understand why there’s such a groundswell of support. This crisis is affecting us all. People see stagnant wages and rising costs while profits skyrocket. It highlights the double standards of the capitalist system. It points to an understanding that when workers go out on strike, they don’t do it purely for themselves but to take a stand against a system that doesn’t pay workers their fair share.
All these lecturers want, Pete says, is “meaningful discussion – for management to get round the table and make us an offer we can accept.” Management have pushed lecturers, like Lynn, into action when they would rather be teaching so they can “make a difference for students.” For this reason alone, it is vital socialists support lecturers on the front line of the fight for the future of education. Because when they, and any other workers strike, they do it for all of us.