College Staff (Industrial Action)

– in the Scottish Parliament on 23rd March 2021.

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Photo of Iain Gray Iain Gray Labour

1. To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had regarding planned industrial action by college staff this week. (S5T-02721)

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

My most recent discussions were with Colleges Scotland yesterday and were about the latest round of negotiations, which is taking place as we speak. My officials have been in regular contact with Colleges Scotland to keep me up to date with all the negotiations.

I understand that, as part of the discussions, the EIS further education lecturers association has accepted that there is no national plan to replace lecturers with tutors, assessors or instructor roles or any other support staff roles. I encourage the employers and unions to continue the current negotiations in an attempt to resolve the situation without the need for industrial action, which is absolutely not in our learners’ best interests, especially against the backdrop of the pandemic.

Photo of Iain Gray Iain Gray Labour

Given that students are trying to maintain their studies in spite of the pandemic, strike action in colleges is undesirable and in this case unnecessary. Equally, this is no time to attack the terms and conditions of college staff.

More than a week ago, the national joint negotiating committee agreed the principle that there is no national plan to replace lecturers with instructor-type posts to do the same job. The trade union EIS-FELA ratified that agreement in its national executive and suspended action, but Colleges Scotland refused to ratify the agreement, even though the agreement was based on an employer-side proposal. That seems to be a matter of bad faith. Will the minister intervene now to ask Colleges Scotland to stand by its words, ratify the agreement that it made and stop the need for strike action?

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

As Iain Gray knows, the matter is to be resolved between the employers and the trade unions. Much progress has been made in the past few weeks and months with the joint statement, of which I am sure Iain Gray is aware. It was agreed that there is no national plan to replace lecturers with other roles, as I said earlier, but there was disagreement over a separate part of the statement that relates to the responsibilities that make up the definition of a lecturer.

As the negotiations are on-going, I hope that constructive progress will be made today that leads to an agreement and to the strike that is planned for later this week being called off. As we all agree, and as Iain Gray agrees, a strike is unnecessary and would not be in learners’ interests against the backdrop of the pandemic.

Photo of Iain Gray Iain Gray Labour

I appreciate the minister’s desire for strike action to be avoided, but an agreement on all points was reached in the negotiating committee. The trade union side ratified that agreement, but the employer side has reneged on it and refused to ratify it. Does the minister think that he really should speak to Colleges Scotland, ensure that it ratifies the agreement that it made, end college staff’s fear of an attack on terms and conditions and remove the need to strike?

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

As I explained to Iain Gray, I spoke to Colleges Scotland yesterday evening. I encouraged Colleges Scotland—just as I encouraged the trade union—to reach an agreement to prevent the strike action. It is a staffing matter between the employer and the representatives of the employees. As Iain Gray says, the employer did not ratify the joint statement. I hope that the two parties can settle their differences in the negotiations that began this morning, were adjourned and have reconvened this afternoon, in order that we can avoid strike action, which is in no one’s interests, least of all those of our learners.

Photo of Jamie Greene Jamie Greene Conservative

Although we all want to avoid industrial action, we cannot ignore the fact that the sector has seen real terms funding cuts of £80 million since 2008, which has forced colleges to consider restructuring as a cost-saving exercise. Does the minister accept that those cuts have put tremendous pressure on our colleges and that we must do everything that we can to support them in the vital role that they will play in a post-Covid recovery?

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

The colleges budget has increased by 30 per cent since the SNP Government came to office in 2007. Indeed, the most recent budget settlement was welcomed by stakeholders, as was the one-off Covid consequentials payment.

Things are tough for further and higher education at the moment, largely as a result of the pandemic—as Jamie Greene is aware. That is another reason why I hope that both sides of the dispute can reach an agreement today and call off strike action that has been planned for later this week. I am sure that both sides want that to happen and I hope that they stay in the negotiating room until they reach a settlement.

Photo of Ross Greer Ross Greer Green

I suggest that strike action is in the interests of college lecturers if it saves their jobs. Of course, no one wants it to come to that.

In a sense this has become an annual event: the union representing lecturers believes that an agreement has been reached in good faith, only for management to go back on that and for the situation to escalate to industrial action or the threat thereof. Does the fact that that happens on an annual cycle not raise serious questions about college management’s ability to negotiate in good faith?

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

Ross Greer may be interested in the statistics that were published today that show that the number of full-time permanent college teaching staff with a recognised teaching qualification in Scots colleges increased by 2.1 percentage points in the last year for which the figures are available. There has been an increase in the number of staff with those qualifications in our colleges.

I want both sides to reach an agreement today. That is in the interests of our colleges, employees and, most of all, our learners. We are talking about a particular dispute between one trade union and the college employers—although depending on the outcome of today’s negotiations, it could affect other unions, too. I accept that we have to pay close attention to the issue. However, it is the responsibility of the employers and employees to reach agreement today.