Student leaders are demanding that ministers act to prevent crippling disruption during exam season as colleges brace for fresh strikes over pay. 

Matt Crilly, NUS Scotland president, has written to the education and finance secretaries to warn of a “perfect storm” facing learners due to government cuts, industrial action and the cost-of-living crisis. His missive also claims the “very existence” of effective student representation at some institutions is under threat.

Meanwhile, bosses at the EIS Further Education Lecturers’ Association (EIS-FELA) have agreed a revised pattern of strike days following what they said was a “refusal” by college employers to join new talks earlier than Thursday.

It means there will be one day of action this week and in the weeks beginning May 15 and 22, and two days a week in the weeks beginning May 29 and June 5. Three days a week are planned from June 12 until the end of the academic year. 

The days will be run in conjunction with action short of strikes, including a boycott that prevents the formal upload of student assessment results to college systems. Notification of a withdrawal of goodwill has also been sent to employers. 

READ MORE: Council workers target Scots schools for strike action in pay battle

College chiefs last week offered a pay rise that comprises consolidated and unconsolidated elements of £900 and £150, respectively. However, this remains below the EIS-FELA's amended demand for a £1,200 flat-rated award.

Senior figures at College Employers Scotland (CES) have insisted the union’s proposition is not affordable. They said institutions had this year forecast a £5.7 million adjusted operating deficit position and were grappling with real-terms government cuts of nearly £52m in 2022/23.

But union leaders highlighted how Scottish principals had enjoyed remuneration increases "far in excess" of those offered to teaching staff. According to their analysis, the highest paid college leader in 2019/20 had a salary of £164,000, which was almost four times the figure for the top of the lecturer pay scale. It also compares with the sum of £47,025 received by the best-remunerated principal in 1993/94. At that time, unpromoted lecturers at the top of the scale were on £21,060. 

CES said that, on principals' pay, no awards were made by colleges for 2021/22. It also stressed the vast majority were awarded 2 per cent or less in 2020/21. Four colleges had no increase for senior staff. 

Mr Crilly, whose letter to Shirley-Anne Somerville and Kate Forbes was co-signed by student association presidents from across the country, called for urgent government intervention.

READ MORE: SNP warned over cash cuts for schools in deprived areas

“There is no doubt that college students in Scotland face a perfect storm of cuts, strikes and cost-of-living rises that are having an impact on the learning and welfare of students,” he said. 

“Scottish Government cuts to college budgets are putting vital student services and effective local student representation at risk on several campuses. The Government has also failed to adequately support students through the cost-of-living crisis, and many students face yet another summer without financial support.

“College staff should also not bear the brunt of the cost-of-living crisis – the Government must act to ensure fair pay and prevent further disruption for students."

CES director Gavin Donoghue said the offer to lecturers was more than had been accepted by teachers, police officers and firefighters. “Less than half of balloted lecturers are now taking part in strike action,” he added.

“The low turnout and a cut in strike days shows clearly that lecturers would rather support their students at exam time than strike for an unrealistic pay deal which isn’t going to materialise. 

“There is no more money employers can offer over and above the £1,050 on the table for them to have right now.” 

However, his position was rejected by EIS general secretary Larry Flanagan, who said: “It is unfortunate that only one side in this dispute is actively seeking a resolution to the ongoing programme of strike action. 

“The EIS has expressed a willingness to meet to reach a negotiated end to this dispute but the management side have been dragging their feet and refusing to meet until after the next strike days have taken place.”

READ MORE: UK ministers under fire over support for Scottish universities

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “In our 2022-23 Budget we will provide over £1.9 billion for Scotland’s universities and colleges – protecting their role in driving an inclusive economy, while delivering high quality education and training for the future workforce.

“We understand this is a tough time for many students and, since June 2021, we have provided more than £37 million in hardship funding to colleges and universities.

“In February, Further and Higher Education Minister Jamie Hepburn wrote to college and university principals asking them to continue to prioritise the allocation of these hardship funds to those students most in need, and to take account of the impact of the rising cost of living. We continue to work closely with NUS and stakeholders on reviewing the support available to students over the summer.”