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Thousands of jobs are at risk in the college sector

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In addition, the SFC reported that Scotland’s colleges have already spent a combined £6.7 million on staff restructuring efforts in 2021-2022. The SFC estimates that a restructuring will cost colleges a further £21.4 million by the end of the 2023-2024 academic year.

Savings are expected to come through various methods, from voluntary severance (expected to account for 1,103 FTEs) to compulsory redundancies (154 FTEs).

The report states that staff costs account for 70% of college spending and are “the main focus of savings as colleges try to balance their budgets in the current fiscal environment.”

This is likely to cause further conflict, the SFC reported.

“Given the experience to date of industrial relations within the sector, this level of staff reduction is likely to result in widespread industrial action.”


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Although the current dispute is the latest in a decade-long cycle of conflict, it is unique in a few ways. These new developments illustrate a shift in national bargaining and how College Employers Scotland (CES) – representing employers – and unions engage with one another.

As cost pressures weigh on colleges, many are looking for ways to make savings. While these concerns predate the current negotiations, the disparity between union demands and employer offers will likely push colleges further past their financial limits: CES has said that meeting the current union pay claim will require an extra £30 million, money they insist colleges don’t have.

The current pay deal has been under negotiation since EIS-Fela, the union representing lecturers and support staff unions GMB, Unite, and Unison submitted pay claims for £5,000 flat cash for all staff in the summer of 2022. 

Already, the fact that a pay claim from 2022 is still unresolved puts the current dispute in uncharted territory. The first two offers from CES—a 2% raise and then a 3.5% raise spread over two years—were rejected and triggered industrial action ballots from unions, spurred partly by employers’ claims that colleges might need to lay off workers to fund the pay increase.

The Herald: Some of the most heated industrial action took place last year at City of Glasgow College, where union members successfully fought off plans to cut up to 100 jobs.Some of the most heated industrial action took place last year at City of Glasgow College, where union members successfully fought off plans to cut up to 100 jobs. (Image: Colin Mearns)

When CES tabled a two-year, £3,500 offer in June 2023, multiple colleges considered compulsory redundancies.

Attempts to lay off workers at Edinburgh College, Dundee and Angus College and City of Glasgow College – where up to 100 jobs were at risk – were stalled in each case by strike action or the threat of strike action by EIS-Fela, the union representing lecturers.

Industrial action is nothing new in the college sector, but the tactics employed in 2023 are unusual. While support unions carried out strike action, EIS-Fela turned to a form of action short of a strike (ASOS) known as a results boycott. 

In their briefing to MSPs this month, EIS-Fela explained their strategy.

“While observing a resulting boycott, lecturing staff will still deliver teaching and learning, continue with assessment, mark assessment, provide feedback to students and track their progress.”

But, critically, they will not submit student results. This puts student progression at risk.

CES has since submitted a second “full and final offer” of £5,000 over three years – £2,000 for year one, £1,500 for year two and £1,500 for year three. This was a counter-proposal to the union pay claim for an £8,000 raise over three years, tabled in October 2023.

The offer also came with a promise that no job losses would be directly tied to this pay offer, a concession to a previous demand from the unions.

The Herald: CES Director Gavin DonoghueCES Director Gavin Donoghue (Image: CES)

Gavin Donoghue, director of CES, insisted that the financial and political climate means this is as far into the coffers as colleges can reach.

“The money that’s already been agreed by College Employers Scotland has been set aside, so that is a liability that colleges know they have to pay. It was tough, and a lot of colleges have said that it’s at or beyond the limits of affordability for them.”

CES estimates the cost of the current three-year, £5,000 offer is £72.5 million. The union £8,000 pay claim would cost more than £100 million, Mr Donoghue said.

“That’s an extra £30 million at least, every year, ongoing from 2025-26 onwards. You have the compounding effect of the first three years of the deal and that has to be maintained.”


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EIS-Fela and Unison have rejected the offer. EIS-Fela has explained that they feel the offer represents an 11.5% pay increase over three years for most lecturers but falls short of inflation levels in the same period, while recognising that it would represent a significant percentage bonus for the lowest-paid support workers.

A spokesperson recently told MSPs: ”It simply does not address the financial hardship that its members have endured over the past two and a half years.”

Support staff unions GMB and Unite have voted to accept the offer, but their votes are outweighed by the much larger Unison in negotiations.

Negotiations from 2023 have been carried into 2024 and the disputes have merged. EIS-Fela renewed its mandate for industrial action and a new results boycott in January, after failing to meet the turnout threshold for a previous ballot held at the end of 2023.

Union messaging now puts the onus for resolving the dispute squarely on the shoulders of the Scottish Government.

“The Scottish Government must be convinced to ensure that College Employers Scotland can facilitate a fully funded pay award, one that meets the expectations of the professional lecturing staff in Scotland,” EIS-FELA told MSPs. 

The Herald: EIS-FELA is now looking to the Scottish Government to resolve their pay dispute and fund a pay raise. But Holyrood is remaining conspicuously absent in the fight.EIS-FELA is now looking to the Scottish Government to resolve their pay dispute and fund a pay raise. But Holyrood is remaining conspicuously absent in the fight.

Mr Donoghue, however, believes that this is a misguided attempt. The government has stepped in to fund pay resolutions before, but the political and financial climate feel different this year.

“All the evidence says that Scottish Government is not coming in. Everything they’ve said, everything they’ve done, everything they’ve put in writing, there’s never been one glimmer.”

So with a new boycott threatening to disrupt the end of the academic year, employers have also adopted a new tactic: colleges will withhold pay – up to 100% – from lecturers who participate in the boycott, even if they continue in their other duties. 

The tactic has triggered controversy. After The Herald first reported on the employers’ intentions, many colleges issued new statements softening their stance. Information about a February meeting between college leaders and CES has been closely guarded despite multiple Freedom of Information requests.

Still, colleges appear intent on sticking by the strategy, and their resolve will be tested as the academic year ends.

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