Issue 191 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published November 1995 Copyright © Socialist Review
One newspaper has described them as a war zone--the further education colleges where lecturers were involved in nearly one quarter of all strikes last year.
A total of 58 of the colleges face bankruptcy and 303 out of 450 colleges are running a deficit. Only increasing student numbers and forcing less staff to work harder can save the colleges.
According to a Times Educational Supplement survey, one in seven FE staff are the victims of bullying by a new breed of productivity squeezing managers.
Principals have been told money for the repair or purchase of new buildings will have to come from the private sector as dilapidated buildings are pushed to bursting point by the student growth targets. Colleges can seek loans for the work, but if they default on debt repayments, the lenders could take over the assets of the college.
The government is backing Christopher Jonas, a member of the Further Education Funding Council (FEFC), the quango which directs Tory FE policy, to hurry the privatisation in FE. He spelt out his plans at a special conference for would-be investors last month. The FEFC circulated all colleges with news of a 'space management and usage survey of their premises'. The contract was won by the London firm of surveyors and valuers, Drivers Jonas: senior partner one Christopher Jonas.
Sodexho. the French multinational, and its British company Gardner Merchant already own many of the colleges' privatised canteens. The consultants Bowmer Kirkland have put up over £5 million for the new part time lecturers' agency, ELS. Thousands of part timers have already been sacked as colleges prepare to try out the agency which slashes up to £2 off the hourly rate for part timers.
There is a new memorandum this term giving college management a list of techniques for coercing all full time lecturers on to new contracts. The new contract remains a collective contract only at the first stage. At the second stage it becomes a personal 'flexible' contract. It could easily become a part time contract.
It is easy to believe that market forces will destroy not only jobs, but that the entire FE system will disintegrate. Yet there are now over 3 million students. Further education serves more of the over 16 population than all of the schools and universities put together. For many of the half million teenagers who left school this summer FE represents the one possible escape route from living in acute poverty. A recent Children's Society survey pinpoints the fall in wages in rotten jobs with no training as a spur to further education. For many working class adults FE represents not so much a second chance but a last chance.
Yet the chaos in the system worsens by the day. Government gloss on the breakneck expansion of student numbers highlights a brave new world on the verge of broadening and deepening its human resources. This is millennium-speak where the multiskilled individuals of the next century will be ready to move from job to job. They will be mentally conditioned for temporary spells of unemployment because education and retraining packages will be on tap via a 'university of life', flicked on with a switch to a home computer screen or available at the virtually lecturer-less open learning centre down the road. Tony Blair has been huffing and puffing to catch up with the jargon.
Will Hutton brilliantly took all this apart in a Guardian article. He analysed the report on education and training by the OECD which had looked at schools, colleges and universities. A telling paragraph in the report exposed the flaw at the heart of government policy: 'Increasing financial pressure on agents within underfunded quasi-markets can encourage opportunistic behaviour to the detriment of professional commitment and quality standards.' In fact this is a deep-rooted deceit, as Hutton points out:
This explains why there are so many 'pretend' qualifications, particularly in the vocational areas which keep students in a college, hence numbers stay high.
There is some confusion on the left here. Anyone who teaches in these colleges witnesses every day the enormous waste of potential. The so called weaker students--those who have no confidence in their ability to benefit from education and training--are pushed from pillar to post. They end up in the wrong classes and cannot cope. They are pressurised to try a different course which has a dubious qualification at the end of it. What they really need is proof they are acquiring real skills whether they are literacy, computer literacy, physics, cooking, history or bricklaying. They need time for their education which most of them do not have because they have to take part time jobs to survive.
Sooner or later they may realise their strength in numbers and take collective action to demand a proper deal. Meanwhile they hang on resentfully or drop out. The dropout rate is now approaching 50 percent, exposing the real cynicism behind the Tory boast of record student numbers.
The problem for the lecturers is that they cannot by themselves offer the students a real alternative. Yet there is a real transformation taking place in the working lives of lecturers, from low pay, alienation from a lack of control over the job and the growing hatred of the management bullies, to the turn to militant trade unionism, which is forcing lecturers closer to the social backgrounds of the people they teach. An alliance here is certainly possible. But it can only be forged in the context of highly unfashionable socialist arguments which speak the politics of social class and which fiercely defend the ideal of a genuinely egalitarian education system.
College lecturers also face the problem of a complete loss of nerve by their union, Natfhe, in the fight against new contracts. The union has pursued a strategy of local deals as a way of avoiding combat with an aggressive national employers' organisation, the CEF. Local deals worsen conditions but by much less than that demanded by the employers nationally. Lecturers are weary after two years without a pay rise, wave after wave of strike action and the failure to implement the union conference decision to organise a national pay campaign. It has become easier for union leaders to sow the illusion that a local deal can buy both peace and a pay rise.
But the two flagship deals at Sheffield and Manchester are already coming unstuck. At Sheffield, the largest college in the country, the employer has used the deal, despite union protests, to claim two extra teaching hours a week rather than the one extra hour agreed, to tell lecturers to stay on the premises all day every day and to sack part timers. At the Manchester College of Art and Technology, MANCAT, 'the best deal in the country' so called because, unusually, it retained a top limit of 21 teaching hours a week, has collapsed. The employer is threatening redundancies and demanding a new deal.
The employers regard local deals as merely the end of a first tactical battle. Their long term goal is to eliminate union influence in the colleges. This is indeed a war and Natfhe had better get used to it.