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Strikes on tomorrow across all six Northern Ireland colleges over pay row

UCU Northern Ireland Official Katharine Clarke

Members of the University and College Union (@UCU) across all six Northern Ireland further education colleges will down tools tomorrow (Wednesday) after Stormont failed to address staff concerns over pay and terms & conditions.  

UCU members at the six colleges – Belfast Metropolitan College, North West Regional College, Northern Regional College, South Eastern Regional College, South West College and Southern Regional College – will take part in an online strike rally over Zoom at 10.45am tomorrow morning. They will be joined by UCU general secretary Jo Grady, UCU president-elect Janet Farrar, and UCU Northern Ireland official Katharine Clarke. 

The dispute centres on Northern Ireland Minister for the Department for the Economy (DfE) Diane Dodds and her department’s failure to increase college funding so that employers can pay staff fairly.  

College employers advised UCU the most they could offer from within existing college budgets for a pay award was 7% over a four year period. The employers acknowledged the offer is insufficient, both in terms of properly rewarding staff, and addressing ongoing problems of recruitment and retention.  

UCU said the offer is barely better than pay restraint and fails to adequately compensate for the years when lecturers received no cost of living increases at all. The union also rubbished claims by the DfE that decisions of the department have no bearing on the negotiations. 

The strike action will be immediately followed by continuous action short of a strike unless Minister Dodds and the DfE secure more funding for colleges and a proper pay rise for college lecturers. This industrial action will see UCU members only working to contracted hours, refusing to work overtime, and boycotting any unagreed additional duties.    

UCU Northern Ireland official Katharine Clarke said: ‘UCU members are going on strike tomorrow because they have received a paltry 3.8% increase in total since 2013/14. School teachers have received 11.25% over the same period. The offer of 7% over four years in the context of the previous capped awards equates to 1.2% per year over a nine year period. No other workforce in the public sector has been subject to such a derisory increase.  

‘The DfE’s contention that it has nothing to do with this dispute is both untrue and deliberately misleading. The DfE determines the level of funding allocated to colleges, and as such is clearly responsible for stagnating pay. UCU has requested to meet with DfE Minister Diane Dodds on numerous occasions to try to avoid the disruption that will be caused by industrial action. Yet the minister has consistently refused our request for a meeting, she will not talk and she continues to shirk her responsibility for the underfunding of the six regional colleges.’ 

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: ‘UCU members in colleges across Northern Ireland are tired of seeing their pay eroded. UCU cannot understand why the DfE values the work of our members so poorly. College staff have delivered high quality teaching and learning online, they have gone above and beyond providing pastoral care to their students struggling to cope with the challenging environment lockdown restrictions present. Unless the DfE recognises this effort with a fair pay award, industrial action will continue.’ 

All six further education colleges in Northern Ireland will be hit with one day of strike action on Wednesday 24 March unless Stormont urgently addresses staff concerns over pay and conditions of service, the University and College Union (@UCU) announced last week (17 Mar). 

The strike action will be immediately followed by continuous action short of a strike. This will see UCU members only working to contracted hours, refusing to work overtime, and boycotting any additional duties.  

UCU balloted its members after the employers made a pay offer of just 7% over four years. Overall, the offer amounts to an annual pay rise of 1.2% over a nine-year period and is a real terms cut. An overwhelming 88.7% of the union’s members who voted did so in favour of strike action and over 96% said they will take action short of strike.

UCU declared a dispute with the Minister for the Economy, Diane Dodds, because the employers say they cannot pay staff more unless Stormont increases college funding. The union said it cannot understand why the Department for the Economy (DfE) seems to value the further education sector and the work of its members less than other teaching staff, and demanded that Minister for the Economy, Diane Dodds intervene to achieve fair pay for college staff. UCU added that college lecturers have supported their students throughout the pandemic and deserve an increased pay offer just as much as school teachers. 

This year school teachers in Northern Ireland were offered pay increases of 2% for 2019/20 and 2% again for 2020/21, after Education Minister Peter Weir made representations on their behalf and helped secure better wages. 

UCU claims a significant obstacle to achieving a fair pay settlement for lecturing staff is a flawed assumption held by DfE officials that pay rises can be financed solely from generating ‘efficiencies’ within the sector. In reality that means forcing staff to work harder for much longer hours. The union said this is neither realistic, fair, nor sustainable.

UCU Northern Ireland Official Katharine Clarke said:

‘There is no excuse for our further education members continuing to receive such low pay compared to the rest of the education sector. The refusal of Minister Diane Dodds and the Department for the Economy to intervene to secure more funding for colleges and a proper pay rise for college lecturers suggests Stormont does not appreciate the value of further education. If these unfair pay levels continue, staff will be driven out of the sector. Unless the minister moves to address the situation, including making representations to the Department of Finance, the sector will be hit with continuous industrial action starting with a one-day strike on Wednesday 24th March.’

UCU General Secretary Jo Grady said: ‘On top of their usual vital work, our members in colleges across Northern Ireland have worked flat out to support students throughout the pandemic. They deserve fair pay just as much as school teachers and NHS staff. Further education is absolutely central to society under any circumstances, but it will be even more crucial as we recover from Covid and face the challenges of a post-Brexit economy. Yet since 2013/14, college lecturers have received a measly 3.8% pay rise, compared to 11.25% for school teachers over the same period.’  

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