Sue Berryman applauds the government's plan to swell the ranks of further education but urges it to alleviate the plight of the sector's demoralised and underpaid staff
The prospect of at least 400,000 more students entering further education by the year 2002, while welcome, has come as a bolt out of the blue in a sector where some 15,000 full-time teaching posts have disappeared over the past four years, mainly through redundancy, ill health and early retirement.
Much of the teaching previously done by full-time, experienced lecturers is now carried out by casually employed, part-time staff or temporary staff supplied by agencies such as Education Lecturing Services. The effect oncolleges has been dramatic. Although hourly paid part-time teachers have historically featured in further education more than in any other part of the education service, concern was already being expressed before incorporation that, in some cases, as much as 25 per cent of teaching was being delivered this way.
Today, as "efficiency gains" exact an ever higher price, the proportion of part-time to full-time staff is as high as 50 per cent in some colleges, a fact remarked upon in the last report by the chief inspector where he says: "Such changes in college employment patterns may undermine standards." He comments that part-time staff rarely engage in curriculum development, student support and guidance activities, extra-curricular provision, formal staff appraisal and in-service training - areas of activity that assume even greater significance if vastly increased numbers of students are to come into further education over a short period of time.
The profession maintains its quality partly because of earlier investment in staff development. Before incorporation, funding from the Grants for Education Support and Training programme (GEST) was around 1 per cent. While this may still be the average for income spent on staff development, the picture varies widely between institutions - from as low as just 0.33 per cent up to 2.0 per cent. To do justice to the new students, resourcing in-service training must be a priority area.
But, in a sector with an overall deficit of almost Pounds 200 million and already required to educate larger numbers of students with fewer resources, where is the money to come from?
Certainly not from further savings in the staffing budget. Apart from the economies resulting from casualisation, failure to pay an appropriate rate for the job is endemic. Many colleges no longer follow the scales recommended by the national employers and increasingly lecturers are placed on a narrow pay band, thereby denied progression to the top of the scale. Pay has fallen well behind that of similar professional groups and is a disincentive to prospective entrants. The median starting salary for graduates in all organisations in 1997 was forecast to be Pounds 16,000 (Association of Graduate Recruiters). In further education, where the national scales are applied, a graduate starts at Pounds 12,573. After 14 years lecturers reach a salary of Pounds 24,354. Hardly the kind of money to encourage the brightest and the best.
A survey carried out for Natfhe last year by the Trade Union Research Unit at Ruskin College showed that half of all lecturers earned between Pounds 20,000 and Pounds 24,999. The survey noted "an unusual earnings profile for a professional group. While earnings profiles do vary across professions, the strong concentration in one earnings category abruptly followed by an earnings ceiling does not correspond with the general nature of professional career earnings profiles."
The same survey showed that part-time lecturers were "very much at the bottom of the earnings league, being concentrated in earnings bands under Pounds 10,000". Small wonder poor pay levels were found to be a factor in lecturers wishing to leave the profession and were seen by the chief inspector to contribute to the "general low morale".
It is not only pay which must be put right if the sector is to respond to the new challenge. The heavy administrative demands of the Further Education Funding Council for England are commonly cited as one of the main stresses for teaching staff. They are seen as preventing lecturers from getting on with the job they want to do - teach. An obsession with measurable indicators of success has removed the emphasis from the prime function of the teacher - to facilitate learning and develop potential. Quantitative measurements usually related to administrative and organisational arrangements mean pedagogy is under-valued and, with it, the role of the educator.
The dispute over contracts between colleges and the union has exacerbated this feeling that pedagogy is neither rated nor understood (particularly by business-dominated governing bodies). The insistence by the national employers that no limits be placed on teaching hours - in marked contrast to the new universities with their 18 hours a week limit - has confirmed staff fears that teaching is under-valued, as has the continuing reduction in student taught hours. In some instances a full-time student receives as little as 12.5 teaching hours a week compared with the normal 24 or so pre-incorporation and the 25-hour norm of our European counterparts.
Fundamental as it is to national, regional and local economic growth, as well as to social cohesion, further education must have a well-qualified, highly motivated, appropriately remunerated staff if new influxes of students are to get the quality education to which they are entitled.
Sue Berryman is Natfhe's national negotiating secretary for further education.