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Education / College boycott pay warning described as ‘intimidation’ by union leader

UHI Shetland lecturers forming a picket line outside Shetland College in 2023. Photo: Dave Donaldson

A UNION leader says local lecturers are “utterly outraged at blatant intimidation” and a “draconian approach to employee relations” over warnings that taking part in a boycott could result in loss of pay.

Local EIS-FELA branch secretary Andrew Anderson said given that there are job cuts on the horizon in a bid to reduce a sizeable deficit, staff at the local college have been left “even more disillusioned”.

The warnings over loss of pay went out to lecturing staff from colleges across Scotland, including UHI Shetland, last Friday.

Anderson said the warning relates to the ongoing pay dispute between Scotland’s colleges and the EIS-FELA and Unison unions.

Action short of a strike started on 12 February, consisting of work to rule – refusing to do work that is optional in an employee’s contract – and a resulting boycott, where staff do not share, enter or record student assessment results.

Anderson said the letter last Friday stated that participation in a boycott would be considered a breach of contract which would result in deductions from pay.

He said the letter stated “we will deduct pay at 100% where you have not entered results on the appropriate system by the due date” and that they will go on deducting 100 per cent pay until results are entered.

But Anderson said the time taken to enter results is around 15-30 minutes every few weeks – “an extremely small portion of a lecturer’s workload”.

“It should also be remembered that student assessments and feedback to students on these assessments will continue as normal,” he said.

Anderson added that three or four letters have gone out to staff across the country, but the “one that has gone out to UHI Shetland lecturing staff is the most extreme”.

However, UHI Shetland said in a statement in response that the letter was similar to others that went out.

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“Given the severity of the current job cuts proposals, that could see up to one third of lecturing staff losing their jobs, this latest communication to lecturing staff has left staff feeling very angry and even more disillusioned with management,” Anderson added.

Nationally EIS general secretary Andrea Bradley said college lecturers have achieved a “legitimate mandate” to take action. For EIS-FELA 77 per cent of members who voted in a ballot supported strike action, and 85 per cent were in favour of action short of a strike.

Anderson added that lecturing staff have not had a pay increase since September 2021.

College Employers Scotland, representative body for the colleges as employers, said it was “deeply regrettable” that EIS-FELA is “calling on lecturers to take part in a resulting boycott that could cause significant disruption to student outcomes”.

Director Gavin Donoghue said: “A similar resulting boycott last year was only mitigated thanks to the hard work of college staff and colleagues at partner organisations, who sought to minimise the impact on student progression.

“The priority of colleges is to protect the interests of students, and they are determined to avoid a repeat of last year’s situation. That is why college leaders have now made it clear to staff who may participate in a new resulting boycott that this would be considered a breach of contract and could lead to pay deductions.

“Deducting pay from staff is never a measure that colleges want to take.

“However, they simply cannot accept the risks that another resulting boycott would create for the awarding of qualifications, and the ability of students to progress in their learning journeys and careers.

“The Scottish Government is proposing to cut college budgets by £32.7 million, or 4.7%, in 2024/25, after an 8.5% real-terms reduction in public funding since 2021/22.

“Despite this, colleges remain committed to the full and final offer to the EIS-FELA of a £5,000 consolidated pay rise over three years.

“If accepted, this substantial offer would deliver an 11.5% average pay increase for college lecturers from September, keeping them as the UK’s best-paid college lecturers. Those at the start of the National Pay Scale would benefit from a rise of 14.2%.

“We urge the EIS-FELA to face up to the reality of the financial challenges facing colleges, cancel the damaging resulting boycott, and ballot its members so they have a chance to accept the full and final fair pay offer on the table from employers.”

A spokesperson said UHI Shetland was “joining the broad collective position of the colleges’ sector approach, along with over 90% of Scotland’s colleges, in having written to our staff who may take part in the EIS-FELA resulting boycott to inform them this would be considered a breach of contract and will result in pay deductions”.

“The letter that went to UHI Shetland staff was similar to letters that went out to other colleges to provide clarity to our staff of the consequences of this industrial action,” they added.

“Our priority is our students, and we wish to minimise the harm a resulting boycott will do to the students learning and progressing in their training and careers.”

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