Strike action was taken by members of the University and College Union (UCU) at East Sussex College in Hastings last week. Teachers and other admin staff went on strike for two days, on Tuesday and Wednesday 29th and 30th January, in support of a claim for an increase in their pay. Similar action is intended for three days in March (Wednesday to Friday, 20th to 22nd) if the college management does not make an acceptable offer in the interim.

PICTURE: UCU

Union representative Justin Wynne, who teaches history at the college, confirmed that the dispute is, from the union’s point of view, purely about pay. He claims that over the last nine years, during which there has been overall national inflation of 25% in living costs, employees of the merged East Sussex College Group (ESCG) – formerly  Sussex Coast College in Hastings and Sussex Downs College in Eastbourne, Lewes and Newhaven – have received only a 1% increase in pay. They now seek a 5% increase or, for the workers at the lowest grades, a flat rise of £1,500 per annum (pro rata for part-timers), in order to recover just a fraction of the real wage losses that have been suffered over the period. Without that partial recovery, Mr Wynne argues that the pay is “no longer commensurate” with the work being done, that stress levels and consequent ill-health among the existing staff will continue to mount, and that the exodus of experienced teachers will become a rout.

College teachers are generally paid on a sliding scale for a 37-hour week, which includes on average 24 hours of direct classroom teaching. However, for the average teacher, that probably requires around 18 hours’ planning (45 minutes for each hour, not including extra time for marking and assessments). While experienced teachers giving repeat lessons may not need to spend so long, the constant changes in subject allocation and course curriculum don’t give opportunity for much repetition. So most of the time it’s more work, often over 50 hours per week, for decreasing real pay. 

Central Government Cuts
Mr Wynne recognises that the level of grant which the ESCG, like other further education colleges, receives from central government has itself been cut in real terms by up to 25% per head of student in the 16-18 age bracket. Up to 2016 the funding of further education colleges came under the remit of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, since then from the Department for Education (DfE): either way there has been no attempt to match financial support to levels of monetary inflation.  

So the problem is national, not just confined to East Sussex. And the UCU strike action has been mirrored in 14 further education colleges up and down the country where a majority of union members voted for it – 91% in favour on a 56% turn-out at ESCG, according to Mr Wynne. 

Management Response
He says that the local management is broadly sympathetic to the pay claims.  However, the DfE’s grant made available to them to cover the costs of last year’s merger was predicated on a programme of making ‘efficiency savings’ that would reduce the overall salary budget from 74% of turnover to 64%, involving substantial cutting of support staff. Their negotiating position seems to be that they cannot make any offers unless and until their central grant is increased, or else they manage to attract greater numbers of higher education students, who pay tuition fees.

The union does not accept this, believing that ESGC could increase revenue from fuller use of its existing assets, hiring out the facilities at Station Plaza, for instance, to local businesses in vacation periods or off-peak. They also point to the sizeable increase in salaries, pensions and other emoluments, such as healthcare benefits, paid to the dozen or so senior managers. Publicly available accounts show that in 2012 the highest paid individual executive at Sussex Coast College was paid £125,000; by 2017 the equivalent figure was £180,000, a rise of 44%, not including benefits and pension contributions. According to Mr Wynne, senior managers received between 5 and 10% increases post-merger. And the departed principal of Sussex Downs College, Mike Hopkins, is reported to have received £80,000 for ‘gardening leave’, i.e. for not working, over the final five months of his contract. Little wonder that the union feels that management has not been sharing in the pay squeeze.


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