On Thursday 6th March, following a campaign that included five days of strike action at colleges across the country, EIS-FELA and Colleges Scotland formally ratified an agreement bringing an end to the national dispute over the replacement of lecturers with instructor/assessor type roles.

Although instructor/assessor type roles have existed in the Further Education sector for some time, in more recent years they have evolved in some colleges and replaced lecturers in the delivery of learning. The way this has taken place varies between different colleges; with some replacing lecturer roles following those posts being vacated, or through voluntary severance, and in one instance, at Forth Valley College, through offering over twenty lecturers redundancy or an instructor/assessor type role.

The national dispute on this practice by college managements was raised at the National Joint Negotiating Committee (NJNC) in September 2020. Colleges Scotland, who negotiate at NJNC on behalf of the Employers’ Association, initially refused to recognise the dispute. However, following intensive discussion, the dispute was accepted to be in place and the formal dispute resolution procedure of the NJNC was unfortunately exhausted without resolution.

Attempts to negotiate a resolution, that would protect the central role of the lecturer in Further Education, continued throughout the latter stages of 2020. Against the backdrop of the global Covid-19 pandemic, EIS-FELA negotiators found progress towards a resolution challenging and without an acceptable resolution on the table, there was little option left but to progress with a consultative ballot on both action short of strike and strike action.

The consultative ballot of EIS-FELA members returned a 93% vote in favour of action short of strike action (ASOS) and 86% in favour of strike action, on a 72% turnout – evidence of a tremendous sense of feeling in support of the national dispute.

Negotiations continued at NJNC in the early stages of this year but again without significant progress being made. In response to this, a statutory ballot of EIS-FELA members was opened in February that returned a 91% vote in favour of strike action on a 62% turnout.

In a short timescale, with strict lockdown measures still in place and with adverse weather impacting on postal service, combined with the thresholds and postal ballot requirements of anti-trade union legislation, the EIS-FELA membership again evidenced the strength and depth of their support for the national dispute.

Agreement reached?

The strong statutory ballot result appeared to have a positive impact on negotiations at NJNC and on the eve of planned strike action, on 12th March 2021, an agreement was struck between EIS-FELA negotiators and Colleges Scotland.

This agreement then required to be ratified by both sides’ constituent bodies, with EIS-FELA cancelling one day of planned strike action, as a sign of good faith and to allow the ratification process to take place.

In the case of EIS-FELA, the national executive unanimously ratified the 12th March agreement, however, the Employers’ Association (made up of College principals) failed do so – sending Colleges Scotland negotiators back to unpick the agreement that they themselves had made and plunging the Further Education sector into industrial action for the fourth time in five years.

With lockdown restrictions still remaining in place, and much of the FE workforce working at home, EIS-FELA members up and down the country engaged in a large scale ‘virtual’ strike campaign, taking to social media and utilising video conferencing to build a vibrant and effective campaign of strike action.

With physical picketing limited by Covid-19 safety restrictions, ‘virtual pickets’ were organised across college branches using video conferencing, allowing for large numbers of branch members to show their support for the strike, solidarity with each other and receive updates from branch and national EIS-FELA officials. As the campaign went on, branches joined together in combined and regional pickets to continue to evidence their collective strength and adaptability to a challenging context.

Weekly online rallies and union meetings were held via Facebook live, with EIS-FELA members attending in their hundreds, in increasing numbers, to hear from their national negotiators, EIS General Secretary Larry Flanagan, colleagues from the wider trade union movement and other supporters of the campaign.

The EIS-FELA membership also maintained a strong presence on social media platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, ensuring that their message was heard loud and clear by both their employers and the wider public: that colleges need lecturers and every FE student in Scotland deserves to be taught by a lecturer.

With strike action ongoing and the strength of the membership very clear, EIS-FELA negotiators continued to attempt to find an acceptable resolution to the dispute. Over several challenging NJNC meetings, deadlock remained and again EIS-FELA was pushed into another statutory ballot – this time on Action Short of Strike (ASOS) to be combined with ongoing strike action.

Agreement reached!

With the very real prospect of FE students across Scotland not gaining their results, after an already extremely challenging academic year, progress towards a resolution finally began in late April. Following a number of meetings and lengthy discussion, another agreement was struck on 23rd April and two of the three planned strike days the following week were cancelled, in an act of good faith by EIS-FELA, for ratification of the agreement.

This time, both the EIS-FELA national executive and the Employers’ Association unanimously ratified the agreement, which received formal sign off at NJNC on 6th May. The agreement itself comprises of a joint statement, including a clause stating that those who plan and teach lessons, whilst engaging in assessment should be employed under the National Working Practices Agreement (NWPA). In other words, that those who plan, teach and assess in FE colleges should be lecturers. The agreement also contains a national role profile for lecturers, ensuring a common definition of the lecturer role that had previously not been agreed, despite attempts, in the five years of collective bargaining at NJNC.

There can be no doubt that the strong, creative and resolute industrial action undertaken by the EIS-FELA membership across the country resulted in the outcome achieved at NJNC through negotiation. The actions of EIS-FELA members, in the most challenging of contexts, directly strengthened the hand of the national negotiators that secured the agreement. In the unity of the EIS-FELA membership, came the strength that was required to bring an end to this dispute

Issues Remain

The issue of lecturers being replaced by instructor/assessor type roles, however, continues to be ‘live.’ At the time of going to print, there are two local disputes on the issue; at Fife College and West Lothian College.

There has also been a long-running dispute at Forth Valley College, where the local EIS branch engaged in a programme of strike action following over 20 of their colleagues being regraded as instructors, as an alternative to being made redundant. The full solidarity of EIS-FELA nationally and the main body EIS rallied behind those taking strike action at Forth Valley in protest against this ‘fire and rehire’ process. Shortly before this SEJ went to press, the strike action was suspended following the referral of the dispute to the NJNC Joint Secretaries for review in line with the recent national agreement.