I’m standing on a picket line in Glasgow, the former workshop of the workshop of the world. Our city by all measures remains one of the most unequal in the UK, with high poverty and deprivation levels. Along with North Lanarkshire and Ayrshire, it has the highest unemployment levels in Scotland. I am standing alongside teaching staff, many of whom face the prospect of adding to Glasgow’s unemployment statistics even though they work in a sector which is, almost universally, accepted as being fundamental to creating the life opportunities which so many of Glasgow’s people need. They have been forced to strike for 13 weeks now.

Further education is the gateway to lifelong learning. It’s not, or should not be, the forgotten afterthought or poorer relation of those who don’t go to university. It’s a critical component in the life chances of those who seek to better themselves. Whether that’s adult learners or ESOL students; whether that’s those with additional support needs or caring responsibilities.

One of those fighting for their job is Nicola Smith-Mann, a sports lecturer at the City of Glasgow College with 17 years of service. A mum of four with three of them (triplets) born whilst she was being processed for redundancy. Meeting her on the picket, standing up for her job, her sector and, in her own words “all the mums”, was one of the most profound moments of my life.

Away from this picket line, there is a feeling, a conceit even, that Scotland has a better approach to education than south of the Border. Free tuition fees for university continues to be a flagship policy; childcare policy is seen as a Government priority; and the Scottish Child Payment shows an understanding that life chances begin at an early age and that education works best when poverty is less than a threat. It is certainly hard to imagine Scottish policymakers adopting the Tory approach. Only a couple of months ago, as part of its extended "culture war" strategy of trying to recover some proportion of its lost election vote, the Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced that he would take the sword to "low-value degrees".

Arts students were the particular target. Cue mental images of middle-class lefty students frittering their time away, before ending up in a job disconnected from the subject they studied. Sunak didn’t mention that the cultural industries contributed £109 billlion to the UK economy in 2021. Nor did he mention that in today’s fast-moving labour market and intense technological change, for most the notion of training in a discipline, being in a job you will have for life has fast become a thing of the past.

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What Sunak actually meant was that the concept of education as a right not a privilege extends to some but not others. Education courses which develop general skills and critical thinking are fine for the privileged, but not for the masses. The upper classes may do as they wish. They can study humanities like Rishi Sunak, in the full knowledge that whether their course relates to their planned vocation or not, they are assured of a strong launch pad into the world of work. Not to mention a parachute if things go wrong.

But before we congratulate ourselves for being on the right side of another major policy fault line between Holyrood and Westminster, we need to take a critical view of what is happening in Scotland.

In May the Scottish Government reversed its policy announcement of £46 million for higher and further education. The original promise was hardly expansive (a real-terms cut) but the reversal of even this minimal offer spells further disaster for the sector. The cuts will reduce staff teaching time and endanger access programmes.

Which brings me back to the picket line. The spirit here is strong, the determination and solidarity are there for all to see, but there is also an underlying weariness. Evidence of a workforce which feels that both college management and Government policy have, for too long, conspired to undermine a sector which is so vital to the futures of so many people, particularly working-class people in their city.

Since November last year, the college has overseen, potentially, 182 lecturers leaving employment with more expected to come.

Can you imagine for a moment if an individual school, nursery or any other education institution introduced such scything cuts - with over 180 teachers leaving their post? Outrage would be widespread and urgent solutions demanded.

The truth is that further education continues to be the poor relation both in terms of funding and governance. Despite being clearly identified as part of the public sector, its employees are in a battle to secure minimal fair work. For reasons best known to ministers, and an issue which demands further enquiry, the no public sector no compulsory redundancy guarantee seems to stop at the gates of our college campuses.

A recent Freedom of Information request made by the EIS exposed widespread use of zero, variable hours, and similar precarious contracts in a number of colleges. The union is also balloting further education members across Scotland for action on a wholly unacceptable pay "offer" which tries to force workers to trade pay for jobs.

The choice we have in front of us, therefore, is what are we going to do about it? I’ll return to Nicola. It’s her voice we need to hear: “The Scottish Government has known about this; this can’t happen to any other woman on maternity leave. This is 2023. It’s not good enough to treat people like this.

“Whilst I was on maternity leave, I had to break away from my family to try and demonstrate my worth. I don’t think that’s fair that I was robbed of my maternity time with my newborns to go fight for my job I’ve been in for 17 years.

“The staff are being treated terribly; we’re being treated like cattle. I really want everyone, especially all the Mums on maternity leave, to know what’s going on.”

They do now. Nicola - we stand with you.

Roz Foyer is General Secretary of the Scottish Trades Union Congress