From education to employment

Getting collective bargaining right for Scotland’s colleges

Gavin Donoghue, Director of College Employers Scotland

With colleges mired in industrial action for the seventh time since 2015, Gavin Donoghue, Director of College Employers Scotland, examines possible reforms that could break the cycle of strikes and strengthen national collective bargaining

Groundhog Day for Scotland’s colleges

It is the beginning of a new year – traditionally a time for personal reflection, change, and a fresh start.

Scotland’s colleges could certainly use a fresh start in their relationship with trade unions. Sadly, the opening weeks of 2024 have something of a Groundhog Day feel, as institutions brace for yet more strikes amid the seventh round of industrial action since collective bargaining began in 2015.  

Collective national bargaining, with the National Joint Negotiating Committee (NJNC) at its heart, has the goal of jointly agreeing issues such as pay and terms and conditions of employment in Scotland’s colleges, in partnership with the trade unions. It must also serve the diverse needs of the entire college workforce, including lecturers and thousands of support staff in areas such as IT, library services, administration, and estates management.

Accordingly, the NJNC has a Central Committee, which deals with matters affecting all employees, and two side tables for issues specific to lecturers or support staff. However, it has been clear for some time that the arrangement is not functioning as it should, with lengthy talks failing to resolve long-standing issues around pay and conditions.

The latest chapter of industrial action began in May last year, when college lecturers who are in the EIS-FELA union began action short of strike (ASOS), including a highly disruptive boycott on entering student results. Then, at the start of the current academic year, they joined with support staff colleagues who are members of UNISON and Unite to launch national and localised strikes, while the resulting boycott also continued.

More industrial action on the way?

Another wave of industrial action seems to be on the cards. UNISON has already secured a renewed, six-month strike mandate after 48% of its members – equating to around one fifth of the overall FTE support staff workforce–- voted for further strike action. The EIS-FELA is also balloting for an extended mandate to continue with strikes, ASOS, and a results boycott from February onwards.

Throughout recent discussions, colleges have shown flexibility and creativity in their efforts to secure a pay agreement. Against a backdrop of real-terms public spending cuts, College Employers Scotland (CES), which represents colleges as employers, has moved repeatedly to improve the pay proposals put to trade unions. It is currently offering the EIS-FELA and support staff unions (UNISON, Unite and GMB) a consolidated £5,000 pay rise for all college staff over three academic years.

If accepted, this full and final offer would mean an 11.5% average pay rise from September for Scotland’s college lecturers – already the best-paid in the UK – and just over 14% for lecturers at the start of the national pay scale. Support staff would receive an even greater pay increase of nearly 16%, with those earning less than £25,000 enjoying a 21.5% boost. However, the EIS-FELA, UNISON and Unite have so far refused the employers’ request to take the offer formally to their members for consideration.

At the centre of the impasse are students. There was huge upheaval in their education at the start of the decade, as Covid-related lockdowns transformed the delivery of teaching and learning. Now they face further, prolonged disruption due to industrial action. All this has sparked a growing feeling that the process for deciding pay and conditions at Scotland’s colleges needs significant reform – and quickly.

Ideas for reform

Fortunately, there is lots of analysis of where the existing set-up could be improved, with no fewer than three Lessons Learned exercises carried out since 2017. The Scottish Parliament’s Education, Children and Young People Committee also examined collective bargaining and industrial relations in its March 2023 report on college regionalisation.

A fundamental weakness identified by many observers is lack of trust. According to a major Lessons Learned report published by Strathesk Resolutions in March 2022, “persistently” low trust has been a feature of college sector bargaining “more or less from the outset”. The Strathesk report also highlights how bad behaviour and ill-tempered exchanges have fuelled this problem, with negotiators less likely to take collective responsibility for the conduct and outcomes of talks.

One of the Strathesk report’s key recommendations is that “full consideration” be given to appointing an independent NJNC Chair as one proposal that could result in better relations. This individual would ensure clarity and objectivity during talks – and help tackle poor behaviour from negotiators. Independent and fair oversight could also reduce the likelihood of formal disputes.

The Scottish Government has said it is considering options regarding the appointment of an independent NJNC Chair. CES hopes these considerations progress swiftly.

Improving the evidence base for talks

Another key reform goal will be the establishment of an enhanced evidence base for negotiations. Under the current arrangement talks can become bogged down because one side presents disputed or questionable information that creates confusion, erodes goodwill, and damages trust. Introducing requirements for the timely exchange of facts and figures, rather than anecdote and speculation, would be a major step forward.

Boosting the flow of high-quality information could involve the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) and the Scottish Government providing and verifying information at the start of negotiations. This would enable the early provision of evidence and build a constructive context in which to undertake pay discussions.

Reviewing the Bargaining Agreement

All NJNC negotiations are governed by the National Recognition and Procedures Agreement (NRPA) – a detailed and comprehensive document that sets out a range of protocols aimed at organising the talks between management and staff side representatives. However, it has not been formally reviewed since its introduction in 2015. Given the experience of recent years, the need to revisit and reset this governing document is pressing – something which the authors of the Strathesk report also acknowledged.  

Joint scrutiny of the NRPA would provide opportunities to bring about improvement in a number of areas. Crucially, a review could take in the NJNC’s disputes resolution process, which all too often holds up talks and makes it harder to reach agreement. This is largely because both sides can currently call a dispute without any need for the issue to be ruled as competent business. Clearly, this needs to change.

CES would argue that a review of the NRPA should start with policies and governance before potentially considering whether an overhaul or realignment of NJNC structures is necessary. This would be a logical way of structuring the process, allowing form to follow function. There is also a strong feeling at CES that that much more business could, and should, be conducted outside formal NJNC forums, with the Central Committee and side tables providing the platform for official governance approval of the activities of working groups. Such a shift would enable and support the frank discussions that are crucial to moving negotiations forward.

CES expects that any review of the NRPA would be autonomous and impartial, making it even more vital that the Scottish Government proceeds speedily with its examination of options for the creation of an independent NJNC Chair. The appointed individual could then play a key role in ensuring the independence of any review.  

The need for action

Strathesk’s Lessons Learned report contains a wealth of positive reform recommendations that could support a meaningful overhaul of collective bargaining.

Over the past two years, college employers have stood ready and willing to work with partners on the detail of their implementation. However, action to put the recommendations into effect has been slow.

Colleges and their students, as they face the prospect of more potential strikes, cannot afford to wait. The need for reform of collective national bargaining is urgent.

By Gavin Donoghue, Director of College Employers Scotland

FE News on the go

Welcome to FE News on the go, the podcast that delivers exclusive articles from the world of further education straight to your ears.

We are experimenting with Artificial Intelligence to make our exclusive articles even more accessible while also automating the process for our team of project managers.

In each episode, our thought leaders and sector influencers will delve into the most pressing issues facing the FE.

Related Articles