UCU FE members UCU FE members. Photo: UCU

For lecturers in Further Education to win improvements in pay and conditions, a focus on rank-and-file organising to win a national aggregated ballot is needed, argues Tom Whittaker

UCU members working in Further Education (FE) were surprised and disappointed to learn last week that the union will not be launching an aggregated ballot of all FE branches in England in pursuit of the 2023/24 pay claim and to establish a nationally binding negotiating framework for FE. The decision not to proceed to an aggregated ballot was taken at a specially convened FE sector conference held just before Easter. The voting was tight, with the main motion backing a move to an aggregated ballot and proposed by the Further Education Committee (FEC) being tied with 54 votes for and 54 against. With a tie, the status quo prevailed, meaning no aggregated ballot.

This decision somewhat flies in the face of the result of a recent consultative e-ballot of all English FE branches, the results of which were released just prior to the sector conference. Over 200 FE college branches were consulted on the question: Are you prepared to take strike action to secure an above inflation pay rise, binding national bargaining structures, and a national workload agreement?’ with members voting 87% in favour on a turnout of 51%.

This excellent result was achieved with relatively minimal input from UCU nationally and is arguably one of the most significant moments for FE members since the merger that formed UCU back in 2006. It has, with some justification, being described as historic by activists within the union, even if Jo Grady the General Secretary failed to mention it at the sector conference.

Indeed, it was clear, both in the run up to the sector conference and at the conference, that the proposal for an aggregated ballot faced significant opposition from within the UCU bureaucracy at both national and regional level. This was combined with often pessimistic assessments from many local college representatives regarding what it might be possible for UCU to win for FE through national action.

However, the significance of the e-ballot result lies in the fact that ever since FE was taken out of local authority control in the 1990s, national bargaining has been rendered ineffective and colleges have been able to set their own pay and terms and conditions. This has allowed the government to systematically underfund FE – even in relation to the school sector. College-lecturer pay has fallen around 35% in real terms since 2009 with, on average, lecturers earning £8000-a-year less than school teachers. Support staff such as classroom learning assistants are often very badly paid.


There has been resistance from UCU members in FE, most notably last autumn when over 30 FE branches took up to ten days of strike action. However, despite the enthusiasm on the picket lines, these were ultimately local disputes that mostly resulted in small pay ‘increases’ – usually between 2 and 5 %, but significantly below the rate of inflation. Moreover, the action fragmented as branches settled locally which left a number of branches without any deal whatsoever. Local strike action continues at Darlington, Bradford, Sheffield and Havant & South Downs colleges, but there is an obvious need for us to fight together more broadly as a sector.

This is largely because there is only limited funding available locally, the salaries colleges pay to their senior managements notwithstanding. If we are to win on pay and funding in FE, our action needs to be national, and it needs to target the government directly to force them to fund the sector properly. In addition, it is only through taking effective national strike action that we have any chance of forcing the government and the Association of Colleges to impose binding national bargaining structures on FE.

Undoubtedly, the decision of sector conference to reject an aggregated ballot makes achieving national action more difficult. However, the strength of the e-ballot result means that many more FE branches are likely to be included in the formal ballot for this year’s pay claim – over 100 branches achieved over a 50% turnout in the consultative ballot and over 75% of branches got over 40%. The vast majority of the FE colleges can be drawn into strike action, albeit on a disaggregated basis, in what would be a big step forward for UCU.

Fight for an aggregate ballot

There is now likely to be a battle within the union over the shape of the formal ballot and any future action. Left representatives on the FEC are right to argue that as many branches as possible should be included in the formal ballot and that this inclusion should be automatic, based on the e-ballot results, rather than branches deciding whether to opt in on a local basis.

Strike action needs to target the government for more funding and there needs to be an attempt to stop branches settling locally for unsatisfactory deals to the detriment of the action as a whole. If our demands are not satisfactorily met, then there should be a move towards an aggregated ballot later in the year. With a general election coming in 2024, this is an excellent time to press our case as forcibly as possibly, to both government and opposition.

One final important aspect of the situation is that rank-and-file organisation needs to be strengthened in FE. The right and the bureaucracy were able to defeat the proposal for an aggregated because they could outmanoeuvre the left-led FEC. They could do this because many of the local branch representatives stand to the right of the members who voted and because the left in the FEC doesn’t presently have the networks to circulate its arguments sufficiently widely amongst the membership. There needs to be much more debate about strategy and tactics within the union and we need to develop the understanding of rank-and-file members.

In this sense, the debates in FE over the aggregated battle mirror those going on in many other unions at present, except that we are starting from further back and are fighting to actually get national action going, rather than to prevent a rotten deal being agreed following action having taking place.

However, the union is starting to come alive with more debate and discussion, an essential pre-requisite for any action. In this context, initiatives like the rank-and-file conference being held in June clearly make sense for workers in FE as they do for workers across the trade-union movement.

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