From education to employment

College strike ballot opens as staff say low pay is impacting their mental health


Strike ballots open at 89 college employers today (Tuesday) as a University and College Union (UCU) survey of further education employees shows a workforce in crisis.

The survey of over 2,000 (2,003) workers from colleges across England shows almost all are struggling financially (96%) because of low wages with four in five survey respondents saying their financial situation is impacting their mental health (79%).

Around half (46%) of survey respondents said their income does not cover the cost of living. Of these, almost two-thirds are heating their home less frequently (67%), a quarter are skipping meals (27%) and one in 20 (6%) are using foodbanks.

Employer body, the Association of Colleges (AoC), has so far refused to make any pay recommendation for 2023/24 even though colleges will receive at least £700m more funding over the coming year (23/24) than three years ago.

The survey’s main findings include:

  • Over two-thirds of respondents (69%) said they could leave the sector if pay does not improve
  • Over 19 in 20 (96%) respondents said their income either does not cover their costs of living or only just about covers their cost of living.
  • Almost four in five respondents (79%) said their financial situation is having an impact on their mental health
  • Of the 48% of respondents who said their income does not cover the cost of living, about two-thirds (67%) said they heat their home less frequently, 62% said they are using savings, half said they are using credit cards, over a third (39%) said they restrict hot water, 31% said they are borrowing from friends and family, over a quarter (30%) said have a second job, and a quarter (27%) said they skip meals, and one in 20 (6%) said they use foodbanks.

Comments from respondents:

“I have 2 part-time jobs other than being a [full time] lecturer just to keep my family going. Bills

[and] mortgage take up most of my salary.”

“There is no hope, it’s a difficult job and even small treats like a meal with a friend are out of my reach. My debt keeps mounting and the only paths out of it seem to be further debt or starvation.”

“I am paid minimum wage for a job that requires at least a level 2 [qualification] in my trade. I’ve got three credit cards, two loans and I’m in my overdraft by way too much. I also have a second job. I shouldn’t have to work myself to the bone and put myself in debt for a job I once loved.”

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said:

‘This survey lays bare why our members will be voting in huge numbers to take strike action. College staff are the beating heart of our communities and transform the life chances of hundreds of thousands of students every year. But they are struggling to survive and pay is so low it is harming their mental health.

‘Pay and conditions are so bad, many staff are considering leaving further education. Staff, students and local communities deserve better.

‘The money has now arrived to pay our members fairly. Those who lead our colleges need to start respecting staff properly and give them the decent salaries and manageable workloads they deserve.’

The ballot runs from Tuesday 5 September until Tuesday 10 October. The colleges being balloted: 

  1. Abingdon and Witney College   
  2. Activate Learning   
  3. Askham Bryan College   
  4. Bath College   
  5. Bishop Auckland College   
  6. Blackburn College   
  7. Blackpool & The Fylde College   
  8. Bolton College   
  9. Bournemouth & Poole College   
  10. Bridgwater and Taunton College    
  11. Brockenhurst College   
  12. Brooklands College   
  13. Burnley College   
  14. Burton and South Derbyshire College   
  15. Bury College   
  16. Calderdale College   
  17. Cambridge Regional College (Camre)   
  18. Capital City College Group   
  19. Chelmsford College   
  20. Cheshire College South & West    
  21. Chesterfield College   
  22. Chichester College Group   
  23. City College Plymouth   
  24. City of Bristol College   
  25. City of Liverpool College    
  26. City of Wolverhampton College   
  27. Colchester Institute   
  28. College of West Anglia   
  29. Craven College   
  30. Croydon College   
  31. Darlington College   
  32. Derby College   
  33. DN Colleges Group    
  34. Dudley College   
  35. Ealing, Hammersmith & West London College   
  36. East Coast College    
  37. East Durham College   
  38. East Sussex College Group   
  39. Exeter College   
  40. Farnborough College of Technology   
  41. Furness College   
  42. Gloucestershire College   
  43. Heart of Worcestershire College   
  44. Heart of Yorkshire Education Group   
  45. Hugh Baird College   
  46. Isle of Wight College   
  47. Lambeth College   
  48. Leeds College of Building   
  49. Leicester College   
  50. Loughborough College   
  51. Middlesbrough College   
  52. MidKent College   
  53. Milton Keynes College Group   
  54. Myerscough College   
  55. Nelson & Colne College Group   
  56. New City College   
  57. New College Durham   
  58. New College Swindon   
  59. Newcastle and Stafford Colleges Group   
  60. North Warwickshire and South Leicestershire College   
  61. Northampton College   
  62. Nottingham College    
  63. Oaklands College   
  64. Orbital South Colleges   
  65. Petroc    
  66. Plumpton College   
  67. Runshaw College   
  68. SK College Group   
  69. South & City College Birmingham and Bournville College of FE   
  70. South Devon College   
  71. South Essex College   
  72. South Gloucestershire and Stroud College   
  73. South Thames College Group   
  74. Sparsholt College   
  75. Stoke-on-Trent College   
  76. Strode College   
  77. Suffolk New College    
  78. Tameside College   
  79. TEC Partnership    
  80. Truro & Penwith College    
  81. Walsall college  
  82. Warrington & Vale Royal College   
  83. Weston College   
  84. Weymouth College    
  85. Wigan & Leigh College   
  86. Wiltshire College   
  87. Windsor Forest Colleges Group   
  88. Wirral Metropolitan College   
  89. Yeovil College

UCU emailed its members working in further education to fill out a survey about their experience working in the sector and the pressures of the cost-of-living. The survey was open from Wednesday 9 August 2023 and closed on Monday 21 August 2023. 2,003 further education workers answered it. Please email for a summary of the responses.

Further comments from survey respondents:

“The financial crisis for lecturers at my college is exacerbated by the fact that we had no pay rise for 6 years before getting only 1 % in 2021. We got the [recommended pay award] in 2022 (not fully paid until earlier this year) but that felt like a kick in the teeth when inflation has been over 10%. We’ve already had to make major cutbacks to our standard of living for many years and now with the massive price rises the meagre pay rises are just not cutting the mustard. We are effectively payrolling the college.”

“I am a lecturer of A levels and it frustrates me very much that I get paid about £10 000 less per year compared to A level teachers at other sixth forms. On top of that I get less holiday as well. This in combination with high workload is very stressful.”

“My husband and I both work in FE in the same college. We can no longer afford a holiday on our joint salaries, particularly since we are supporting 2 adult children; one at University and one with mental health problems living at home who can only manage part-time work at present. Even a UK cottage rental holiday is out of our reach at present. We have just had to re-mortgage, so our mortgage will be going up by £150 a month and our fuel bills are going up £130 a month from this month. We will be sitting down this week to look at all our outgoings with a view to cancelling some things such as TV streaming services. Going out for a meal is really not an option. We have changed supermarket shopping to Aldi to save money. A few years ago, we had a reasonable standard of life, but things are getting very pinched financially.”

“I struggle to buy food and commute to work. My commute has gone up to £15-£20 a day and I have probably eaten five meals at work in the last year. With rent getting more expensive, bills going up and more, I have had to sell a lot of my belongings to get by and despite getting a Masters and PGCE to have an okay living, this still hasn’t happened and something needs to change. I came home with more working in bars when with tips included, which is depressing when I considered this my dream job and spent years studying to be a college lecturer.”

“The limited income I am receiving is a constant source of worry, stress and concern. My two young children eat at their Grandparents house twice a week to lessen the burden of the monthly food bill and over the past few months I have resorted to having to turn to food banks. Every month there are more outgoings than incomings into the household and even after taking out a loan and extending an overdraft, this is not sustainable short term, never mind long term and to the point where I am almost in a position to either leave the college or having to secure a second income, further taking away from my family life and responsibilities. As the cost of living is increasing and is likely to continue, I do worry and cannot see how this is manageable on this current salary.”

“I use cold water for the shower because one shower costs close to £1.50, i.e. £45 per month. Electric heating in one room [from 6pm to 6am] costs £5. This alone can add up £150 to bills. Heating/ new clothes/ taxi travel/ weekend pubs etc are [a] luxury at this salary level. I buy food with yellow stickers and pick up some from food banks.”

“We are told by management if we struggle with the cost of living: ‘Use a food bank’.”

“I would like to increase my working hours and stop relying on benefits as currently I am working part-time and receiving benefits to help with the cost of living, but when I have calculated what the difference would be if I went full time, there is no way I could afford to cover rent, energy bills and food on what the full-time wage offers. I generally handle stress really well but recently I have seen how it is impacting on my mental and physical health.”

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