When Stuart Brown became the national further education officer for Scotland’s largest teaching union, he quickly found himself in the middle of a national pay dispute.

Three years later, he is in the same position.

“In January I’ll have been in this job three years and I’ve been in dispute more months than not,” he said.

“We’re stuck in an adversarial cycle in the sector, where employers don’t want to give.”

Negotiations over the current dispute began in Autumn 2022. Over the course of the conflict, union tactics have escalated in response to stalling negotiations.

Last year, lecturers boycotted by refusing to enter student marks into the recording system.

A new strike ballot, due on January 16, will determine the next phase of negotiations.

Mr Brown believes EIS-FELA members will approve more industrial action and institute another results boycott. Despite the looming disruption, he believes a deal is possible if employers return to the table.

“It won’t take much more to get something over the line and avoid another whole term of chaos like we had last year,” he said.

As things stand

College employers made their most recent offer in December. The second offer to be labelled “full and final”, it involves a £5,000 raise for all lecturers and support staff to be paid out between 2022 and 2025.

Mr Brown concedes that this offer takes many union demands into account, including a three-year pay deal and a promise that there will be no job losses associated with the raise.

“The three-year offer being negotiated is attractive to ourselves because our members have been on strike basically every year for a decade.

“It buys a bit of time and breathing space.”

The Herald: EIS National Officer (Further Education) Stuart BrownEIS National Officer (Further Education) Stuart Brown (Image: EIS-FELA)

But ultimately, Mr. Brown said that the amount of money offered is simply not enough to support staff who are struggling. If colleges cannot offer more, he said, the Scottish Government needs to increase their funding.

“It’s as simple as that,” he said. “We’re not looking for the world.”

As long as the dispute drags on, staff feel trapped in an “adversarial” relationship in which they need to force any improvement in their situation.

“The problem is that both sides accumulate an awful lot of baggage if you’re continually in a cycle of dispute, of conflict, of industrial action, that does create bad blood.

“I think there’s an awful lot of that in the sector on both sides.”

Claim and counterclaim

That bad blood plays out publicly in a war of words. Regardless of the conversations taking place during official negotiations, the public perception is one of constant disagreement and inflammatory rhetoric.

For one example, Mr Brown pointed to the tendency to compare average lecturer pay and conditions in Scotland to lecturers elsewhere in the UK.

This, he argued, is counterproductive.

The current three-year, £5,000 pay rise would see entry-level lecturers earning £40,170 and those at the top of the unpromoted scale would earn £48,357.

According to statistics from College Employers Scotland (CES), current lecturer salaries at comparable levels in England are £27,785 and £41,904, respectively. Both salary levels are below what Scotland’s lecturers already receive before the proposed pay rise.

A spokesman for CES recently explained to The Herald how these UK-leading pay awards for lecturers are eating into a shrinking budget and putting unsustainable pressure on colleges.

But Mr Brown argued that these statistics are beside the point. EIS-FELA doesn’t represent lecturers elsewhere in the UK.

And comparing Scottish lecturers to colleagues elsewhere only downplays the reality of the financial difficulties here, he said.

“The connotations with that are unhelpful. I know that our members are experiencing the hard end of the cost-of-living crisis as much as everybody else is.”

Breaking the adversarial cycle

Current negotiations reflect the past decade of conflict, Mr Brown said.

“College lecturers have only received one pay award in the last decade where industrial action wasn’t taken.”

As a result, unions feel that they have no choice but to use strong measures. The past year was no exception.

In addition to the results boycott, union members across the country participated in a series of rolling strike actions that lasted throughout 2022.

The union suffered a setback in September, however, when too few members took part in a ballot to extend the strike mandate.

Mr Brown said that EIS-FELA learned from that failure. And he insisted the previous low turnout doesn’t mean members are ready to give in and accept a deal.

“Balancing a sense of urgency and securing the fairest deal is really challenging. The ballot result was absolutely disappointing. It’s the first time that EIS-FELA has failed to meet the (turnout) threshold.

“I think the membership had a wakeup call with that as well. But we know we’re in a very tough fight and there can be no bystanders.”

To cut or not to cut

At the core, the current dispute is about how much money lecturers and staff can reasonably expect to earn given both the cost-of-living crisis and the broader financial climate in Scotland.

Colleges have been handed smaller budgets to work with in recent years and are looking at an overall decline of up to 8.5%.

Pay raises would mean stretching that smaller budget even further.

While employers say this could lead to painful cuts to their most expensive resource—staff—unions claim that this is not a legal option for colleges.

The Scottish Government’s Public Sector Pay Strategy includes a commitment to no compulsory redundancies in public workforces. Although short of outlawing staff cuts, the policy states that employers must first look to redeploy or retrain instead of laying off workers.

Since colleges are public bodies – according to the Office for National Statistics and Scottish Government – Mr Brown maintains that employers are bound by the no compulsory redundancy policy.

But college employers disagree as CES Director Gavin Donoghue explained.

“The trade unions claim that the public sector pay policy, which includes a no compulsory redundancy guarantee, should apply to colleges.

“Factually, it doesn't.”

The Scottish Government echoes this view. A government spokesman classed colleges as “arms-length” bodies to which the redundancy policy does not apply.

Practically, however, the disagreement itself may be redundant. Budgetary pressures across the sector mean that job cuts remain a possibility.

The current promise that any new pay deal won’t require job cuts can’t provide long-term security as long colleges continue to lose funding, Mr Brown warned.

Tomorrow, in our final piece on the state of Scotland’s colleges, we explore the shared concerns of employers and staff that colleges are being undervalued and overlooked – to a potentially fatal extent.