SERC STAFF FACE JOB CUT ‘THREATS’

A WARNING that jobs will have to be cut at South Eastern Regional College has been branded as ‘intimidatory’ and ‘wicked’.

With pickets expected outside college (SERC) buildings today as part of ongoing industrial action, politicians and unions have warned that job cuts could cause ‘long term damage’ to the further education sector.

Tensions in the ongoing pay dispute between lecturers and the college reached new heights earlier this week when SERC chief executive, Ken Webb, sent out a letter to all staff warning that cuts to the workforce were needed due to ‘an extremely challenging fiscal and political climate’ which has seen the further education sector’s budget reduced by almost £9m in this financial year. 

A further statement released by the College Principals’ Group, the overall body for further education colleges in Northern Ireland, confirmed that consultation would begin to develop a ‘severance scheme aimed at both support and academic staff’.

However, a senior union official has said issuing the letters in the middle of a week of industrial action is a ‘blatant attempt to intimidate our members into abandoning legitimate strike action’.

Katharine Clarke, the University and College Union (UCU) Northern Ireland official was scathing in her condemnation of the move.

“There are many adjectives I could use about the employers’ latest move, but I think their wickedness speaks for itself,” she said.

“I am 100% certain this threatening communication to staff will further increase support for our campaign for lecturers to be paid and treated fairly.”

She went on to say the UCU was extremely disappointed the employers had prioritised threatening staff above seeking resolution.

“The college employers have long maintained there is a recruitment and retention problem for lecturer posts because of pay decline. Yet at the point lecturers take action to address real terms pay cuts, those same employers tell lecturers their jobs are at risk,” she said.

The union said it would ‘not waver in the face of vague redundancy warnings’.

Said the union official: “When the employers have proper proposals with an accompanying business case, that is the correct time to initiate redundancy consultation. The industrial action will continue, and the sector will face ongoing disruption for the rest of this year, and into the next, if the employers do not address pay and workload.”

North Down’s MP Stephen Farry criticised the proposed cuts, with strike action over pay and workload expected to continue this week across the local campuses .

Dr Farry, the Alliance Party’s deputy leader said he is deeply concerned at the prospect of job losses in SERC and other colleges, and at the ongoing erosion of the Further Education sector in Northern Ireland.

He said job cuts would be ‘self-defeating’ and said there is a pressing need to address public pay pressures that have built up for staff. 

 “As a former Minister for Employment and Learning, I am strongly aware of the vital role that further education plays in our society and for the economy, with a twin mission of delivering skills for the economy and providing social inclusion,” he said.

“The Northern Ireland Skills Barometer shows that the greatest skills pressures lie at Levels 4 and 5. This is where FE colleges are particularly crucial.  

 “Instead, we are seeing further education enrolments being squeezed at both ends in terms of schools retaining pupils and trying to replicate vocational courses that are better delivered in colleges and, across the UK, universities are taking increased number of entries where students may have otherwise attended college. 

 “The further education sector is therefore being disproportionately impacted by budget cuts. There is a real danger that this will create long-term damage to the sector,” he added. 

“Instead, the Department for the Economy and any restored Executive need to take a strategic approach that values and invests in Further Education. I will be reinforcing these points over the coming days.” 

SERC did not comment when asked to address local staff concerns and instead a statement from the College Principals Group was issued via a public relations company.

That statement said the Department for the Economy has asked Northern Ireland’s six Further Education Colleges to begin consultation on initiating the development of a severance scheme, aimed at both support and academic staff, in order to ensure the future financial sustainability of the FE sector, including the ability to award future pay increases.

“Following recent public spending cuts and increasing costs, Colleges are now facing unprecedented financial pressures, including the need to address a funding gap of £35m in terms of future expenditure requirements for 2024/25,” said the statement.

“This includes £26m of funding which is not currently consolidated within the Department’s budget going forward.

 

“As employers, we are committed to embarking on a full and genuine consultation process and we will continue to communicate to our colleagues and Trade Unions on this issue.”