Education Secretary John Swinney has defended the pay offer to college lecturers as they went on strike to demand a cost-of-living increase.
Lecturers joined picket lines on Wednesday after rejecting a 12.2% pay increase from Colleges Scotland, saying the offer does not constitute a cost-of-living rise after a three-year wage freeze.
The Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) Further Education Lecturers’ Association (FELA) has accused “intransigent management” of “using conflated figures in publicity to obfuscate the pay claim”, and is calling for a pay rise above the increasing cost of living.
But Mr Swinney told the Education Committee at Holyrood that December’s budget contained funding for colleges to bring lecturers’ pay in line with other public sector increases.
Mr Swinney also claimed a cost-of-living increase is being offered by Colleges Scotland.
Labour’s education spokesman Iain Gray asked Mr Swinney about the pay dispute that triggered the strike, and said: “In the college sector there is no prospect of them finding additional resources for any cost-of-living increases for their staff.”
However, Mr Swinney defended the funding for further education in the proposed budget.
He said: “Resources clearly are there because the employers have offered that.
“The colleges sector finds itself in a position able to harmonise the contracts of further education lecturers across the country, which I’m very pleased the Government has been able to secure as a policy objective and which is now being implemented over a three-year period from funding by the Scottish Government.
“In addition to that, college employers are able to make cost-of-living increases available to members of staff into the bargaining.
“I don’t think it’s defensible to separate harmonisation and cost-of-living as two separate things.”
Members of two teaching unions voted by 90% to 10% in favour of the strike action in December, on a turnout of 52%, after rejecting the pay offer Colleges Scotland claims would have raised average salaries from £36,125 to £40,522 over the past three years.
Picket lines have been formed outside colleges throughout Scotland and dozens of lecturers gathered outside the Scottish Parliament to protest.
Urging Colleges Scotland to “return to meaningful negotiations, in the hope of agreeing a resolution to this dispute”, EIS general secretary Larry Flanagan said: “Lecturers have been forced into this strike action by an intransigent management group that has refused to even attempt to reach a negotiated solution ahead of today’s strike.
“Scotland’s college lecturers have not received a cost-of-living pay increase since 2016 and are asking for only the same type of cost-of-living increase that has been awarded to many other groups of public sector workers.
“Our revised claim, submitted in December, is wholly consistent with Scottish Government public sector pay policy.
“Yet Colleges Scotland has not yet responded to this revised claim and is continuing to use the delivery of equal pay as a barrier to negotiation, using conflated figures in publicity to obfuscate the pay claim.”
Shona Struthers, Colleges Scotland chief executive, said: “It is extremely disappointing that the EIS-FELA is taking disruptive strike action for the third time in four years, especially when the colleges’ pay offer, combined with salary rises from the ‘same pay’ settlement, would see lecturers’ national average pay increase over three years by 12.2%, which is a cash increase of over £5,083.
“This offer on the table is the best overall pay rise for public-sector workers anywhere in the UK but the EIS-FELA want even more.
“They also want more pay for cost of living but a pay rise is a pay rise, irrespective of whether it comes from the ‘same pay’ agreement or the additional cost-of-living offer.
“Finances are extremely tight for colleges and all of the modest £18.3 million revenue increase in the Scottish Government’s 2019-20 draft budget is ring-fenced to pay for the ‘same pay’ rises already agreed so colleges must make cuts elsewhere to pay for an additional cost-of-living offer.
“This is unaffordable and unsustainable for the sector and the EIS-FELA should suspend its strike action and recognise the instability their unwarranted strike action is causing to college students, who lose out the most from strikes.”