Further Education Pay and Conditions

The University and College Union (UCU) 2024 congress is taking place at the end of May in Bournemouth, write Liz Lawrence and Philip Inglesant. Several important issues are tabled for debate, which have a bearing on how the union is organised and its priorities.


There are 67 motions on the order paper, plus amendments. In addition, the Further and Higher Education sections hold separate conferences in the middle of the event . Unite members of UCU staff who are in dispute with UCU may strike that day and stop those conferences. We support these staff members in their struggles.

This is the fifth of a series of articles addressing the debates before UCU Congress 2024. 

This article looks at the pay gap between FE lecturers and schoolteachers and discusses strategies for bargaining in Further Education.

For part of UCU Congress, delegates divide into the Further Education and Higher Education Sector Conferences, based on the principle of sectoral autonomy. It is the members directly concerned who vote on matters regarding the pay and employment conditions in their sector, on negotiating objectives and the industrial action that may be needed to pursue these objectives.

UCU held a special FE Sector Conference on 13th April and the annual FE Sector Conference is scheduled for 30th May 2024.

Pay gap

One of the biggest issues facing UCU in respect of its Further Education membership is the long-term decline in Further Education pay rates compared to that for schoolteachers.  A 2023 report for the Institute of Fiscal Studies reports in respect of college teacher pay in England.

‘The gap between the average salary of school and college teachers has grown over time. In 2010–11, the median salary (in today’s prices) was around £48,000 for a school teacher and £42,500 for a college teacher. Median pay is now around £41,500 for a school teacher and £34,500 for a college teacher. This means that between 2010–11 and 2022–23, the median salary for a school teacher fell by 14%, while the median salary for a college teacher fell by 19%.’

This pay gap has implications for the ability of FE Colleges to recruit, especially in subject areas where comparable jobs are available in schools.

The relatively poor levels of pay in FE arise partly from the lack of a robust framework for national pay bargaining and partly from lack of government funding for the sector.  UCU, along with other unions, negotiates pay for FE in England with the Association of Colleges (AOC) in a National Joint Forum.  This body makes recommendations, but not all pay awards are implemented or implemented fully by AOC colleges.  This can create the situation where FE staff need to take action to achieve implementation of national recommendations.

The ongoing problems with levels of FE pay have led to debate in UCU about how to improve this.  The left in the union has argued correctly for national action over pay in England, with a nationally aggregated ballot and action in pursuit of a national claim.  Despite some decisions by FE Sector Conferences and the FE Committee to pursue this, this has not happened.

These problems of how to make gains on pay and conditions, when the national bargaining machinery does not work well, are not unique to UCU. Sometimes some workers make more gains via local bargaining.  But in the long run national bargaining is unifying, is likely to be better for most workers and to prevent the worst abuses in terms of low pay.  For these reasons in public sector organisations, left trade unionists generally supported national pay bargaining.  Moreover, the comparison with school teachers, where there is a stronger system of national bargaining, supports the case for national rather than local bargaining.

Some UCU officials and members in FE have drawn the conclusion that because the national machinery has not delivered decent pay awards, the answer is to engage in local bargaining, college by college.  Some branches have achieved some progress in settlements in their colleges.  The question is do these local ‘wins’, which may still be pay settlements below the level of inflation, lay the basis for building up to decent national settlements or are they the basis for abandoning any attempt at national pay bargaining and national rates of pay and conditions for the FE sector.

On 13April 2024 UCU held a special FE Sector Conference which rejected the recommendation from the FEC (Further Education Committee) for a nationally aggregated ballot this year. It decided against a nationally aggregated ballot in 2024 and, also, decided that outcomes of local negotiations would not be subject to any national ratification processes.  Overall, these decisions reflect a move away from national bargaining in the FE sector towards more localisation of pay bargaining which will weaken UCU in the FE sector.

National bargaining

Those who have decided against pursuing national pay bargaining for the present have also concluded that national ratification processes should no longer apply and that each branch should have the freedom to conclude whatever agreements it wishes.  This is justified on grounds of branch autonomy.  This represents something of a misunderstanding of the role of national ratification.  Sometimes unions use ratification processes for local agreements as a way of ensuring a measure of commonality in agreements and setting a minimum standard below which no agreements should be made.

Union ratification processes can support local negotiators, enabling local negotiators to inform the employers there is a floor below which they cannot settle.  This is not a bureaucratic burden but a support for local negotiators.  A national ratification process for local settlements can unify union members in sharing negotiating experiences and guarantees that no branch makes a poor settlement which employers can use to drag the rest of the sector down.

The debates at the special FE Sector Conference of 13th April will in some ways continue at the Annual FE Sector Conference, scheduled for 30th May.  This will include debate on when it will be possible to hold a nationally aggregated ballot.  An amendment to motion FE 3 from City and Islington College UCU calls for a campaign for a nationally aggregated ballot to start in January 2025 with the ballot starting in June 2025.  This amendment should be supported. It sets a timetable for the way forward.

The Annual FE Sector Conference will debate a call for an England-wide demonstration for FE, which is a proposal which should be supported.  Unions need to combine campaigning and industrial action.

The FE Sector Conference agenda also addresses many aspects of working conditions and educational provision.  Three motions address issues of workload, inspection, Ofsted and mental health.  The damaging impact of punitive inspections is an issue for all teacher unions.

Motions also address union organising in FE, especially among casualised staff, and equality issues as they affect staff and students.  Among these will be the issue of support for transgender students in FE.  The Cass Review and government pronouncements on sex education have appalled many education professionals and the FE culture is based on treating students as young adults, not as school children.  The LGBT+ Standing Committee has submitted a motion on this topic which affirms the responsibilities of colleges for supporting students and resisting self-censorship, as happened with Section 28.

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Liz Lawrence is a past President of UCU and active in UCU Left.

Philip Inglesant is a member of London Retired Members' UCU branch and formerly of Oxford University UCU

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