College lecturers are engaged in a long-running pay dispute with their employers. Last year, they carried out a resulting boycott as part of the campaign, and having secured a fresh mandate for industrial action from members, the EIS-FELA trade union has announced plans for a repeat during the current academic year.

In response, college principals agreed to implement pay deductions for those taking part. As we exclusively revealed, UHI Perth went so far as to warn staff that 100% of their pay would be withheld if they participated in the boycott, even if they carried out the rest of their duties as normal.

The union responded by accusing employers of “intimidatory behaviour” and “seeking to undermine the right to take industrial action.”

A few days later, a statement from the Director of College Employers Scotland (CES), an umbrella body for the sector, said that principals “are determined to avoid a repeat of last year’s situation”. It added that although they don’t want to dock lecturers’ pay, “they simply cannot accept the risks that another resulting boycott would create.”

Amidst the claim and counterclaim, however, a great deal of confusion has developed – and now nobody really seems to be entirely clear about what is happening or, perhaps more importantly, what will come next.


The confusion

Despite the fact that the decision to dock lecturers pay seems to have been agreed at a national meeting of college principals, the communications that were then sent to staff contained significant variations.

Letters from some colleges ran to several pages in length, while others were just a few paragraphs long. Some were written in entirely detached, formal language, but some included more personal comments from principals.

Even the level of detail available to lecturers varied by institution. For example, while UHI Perth stated that they would deduct 100% of pay, some only advised that they could potentially do so, while others only mentioned the prospect of pay deductions in broader terms.

One college principal claimed that their institution would be forced to implement pay deductions of “up to 100%” due to a national agreement on the matter. However, sources have told The Herald that this is untrue and insisted that no national agreements or recommendations exist.

There are, however, also clear similarities between the letters, and The Herald understands that a specific form of words was indeed provided by College Employers Scotland to all institutions, with individual colleges then deciding how best to adapt it to their circumstances.

A request to release this initial text was rejected by CES, who demanded that an FOI request be submitted instead, therefore delaying the release of any information by up to twenty working days. Requests have also been submitted for details of the meeting at which pay deductions were agreed, along with copies of relevant correspondence, and confirmation of the author of the text issued by CES to members.

The role of College Employers Scotland in all of this remains unclear. CES describes itself as “the body through which the Scottish Government’s Policy of National Bargaining is delivered and implemented by employers in the college sector”. It also says that it “has delegated decision-making responsibilities on all matters related to National Bargaining.”

However, when it comes to the industrial action taking place in response to the outcome of national bargaining attempts, CES claims that it only provided a forum for members to discuss the current situation.


What about students?

One of the key claims of college principals is that they are taking this action in order to protect students from the consequences of lecturers’ actions - in their initial statement, CES said that the “priority of colleges is to protect the interests of students”.

But in a considerable blow to that assertion, student representatives have explicitly rejected those claims and described CES tactics as “shameful”.

NUS Scotland President Ellie Gomersall said: “Students stand in solidarity with lecturers in EIS-FELA as they take this action to fight for fair wages.

“It is teaching and support staff at colleges that actually deliver student’s education, and we know students will only have a good learning environment if staff have a fair working environment.

“The threat to withhold the wages of staff taking industrial action is an absolutely shameful move by College Employers Scotland, and the assertion that this threat is made to protect the interests of students is a cynical attempt to pit students against staff and will not work.

“It is a disgrace for a public body to engage in these kinds of tactics rather than simply sitting down around the negotiation table and making a fair pay offer.

“This is symptomatic of our education system’s chronic underfunding of colleges, which are a lifeline for many in our most disadvantaged communities. Ultimate responsibility lies with the Scottish Government, who have been cutting college funding year after year, and who must now urgently reverse the cuts and engage constructively to deliver a fair pay deal."


The latest

We are already seeing evidence of colleges backing away from the threats that were initially being issued to college staff.

The most obvious example of this is the remarkable about-face from UHI Perth. Less than a week after sending an initial letter, the principal issued new communication to staff. It didn’t quite apologise for the content and tone of what had previously been issued, but it came about as close as otherwise possible, and made clear that pay deductions would not be taking place in the immediate term.

However, the overall threat remains. The lecturers’ union has now issued a fresh statement in which Andrea Bradley, general secretary of the EIS, attacks the “reprehensible” tactics being deployed by colleges, which she says “are drawn straight from the anti-trade union playbook so beloved by hard right-wing regimes and enabled by the UK government’s regressive anti-trade union laws.” She also says that the latest developments are “a mark of shame for Scotland’s college sector employers and, by extension, the Scottish Government.”

In response to a request for comment, College Employers Scotland issued a statement repeating the lines from their previous communications. It once again stated that college principals do not want to deduct staff pay, but that they are “determined to avoid a repeat” of what happened last year and “simply cannot accept the risks that another resulting boycott would create.” The statement also repeated the claim that they are acting to protect students.

A spokesperson added that “over 90% of colleges have made it clear to staff who may participate in a new resulting boycott that this would be considered a breach of contract and could lead to pay deductions.

“Since the response to the resulting boycott is a contractual matter for each individual college, timescales for pay deductions may differ according to local circumstances.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Operational decisions on staffing matters are the responsibility of individual colleges.

“The Minister for Higher and Further Education has made clear his expectation that any decision must be guided by the principles of Fair Work.”