The decision taken by an independent panel to end compulsory membership of the much maligned Institute for Learning (IfL) was a comprehensive victory for the University and College Union (UCU) members who orchestrated and maintained a boycott of the organisation.
The boycott, coupled with UCU’s threat of legal action if IfL or the employers attempted to persecute anybody withholding payment, forced the government to announce an independent review into professionalism in further education in England.
The deep felt anger at the imposition of a mandatory fee for IfL membership reflected the growing frustration towards an organisation that had lost its way and was largely irrelevant to lecturers just wanting to do a good job. It was also a conduit to express opposition to ever-increasing workloads and demands.
Criticisms of IfL have been a consistent feature of UCU annual congress motions since 2008 and that attempt to impose a fee for the privilege of enduring such a mediocre set-up was the straw that finally broke camel’s back.
The successful boycott was an example of UCU responding to a grassroots issue. The member-led campaign successfully utilised the union’s resources at a national level including lobbying, press work, petitions, industrial action, legal challenges, negotiations and ongoing consultation and involvement of members.
So how did it go so wrong?
How did IfL go from being a professional body that most people in the sector had been asking for over many years to one which managed to unite lecturers and their employers in calling for its abolition?
UCU had warned in 2010 that the majority of staff saw little value in its services, with a survey showing 84% saying they would not pay any sort of fee on principle. Yet the opposition to the fee seemed to take IfL completely by surprise.
Others in the sector were less shocked that compelling staff, already suffering pay cuts and increases in pension contributions, to pay to join a body few had much confidence in was not going to be a popular move. The fact IfL could not see this was an indication for many of just how out of touch it was with staff concerns and problems.
However, there are other reasons too. Performing the role of regulator and acting as a voice for the profession was always going to be difficult to achieve. Being the body which could find its members guilty of professional misconduct, and potentially deprive them of their livelihood, sat uncomfortably with it also being their advocate.
IfL didn’t stand up to ministers when it was announced that the government wouldn’t financially support IfL anymore. During the period of moving to being self-financing, IfL largely refused to criticise government initiatives, at a time when the sector and its staff needed all the support they could get.
The tone used in IfL’s communications was always to look on the bright side and support the government and its policies. They didn’t ever reflect the anger and pain its members and the members of UCU and other unions were experiencing in terms of harsher management, especially around lesson observations and losses in jobs and provision.
Part of the reason for these failures was its governance processes which left real decision making to a small leadership group, often ignoring what its own Advisory Council suggested. In the end IfL made the fatal mistake of believing its own propaganda that everyone in the sector loved and wanted it.
As we move on from the IfL debacle it is important to note that throughout the campaign UCU has always been acutely aware of the need to avoid throwing the baby out with the bath water.
The issue around professionalism in the sector was not put to bed in the panel’s report, which was merely an interim report dealing with the IfL issue.
UCU, like others involved in FE, want the best teachers in our colleges delivering high-quality education with appropriate qualifications and access to further training and personal development. We are looking forward to contributing to the wider review of professionalism of further education, where we will continue to make these points.
While the review leans (not surprisingly from this government) towards the need for less regulation, UCU does not support a deregulated sector. Employers in the sector – both colleges and private and voluntary institutions – have been found wanting in providing consistent and high quality support and resources for professional development.
If not through government regulations, then it is vital that clear obligations are placed on employers through funding requirements and the Learning and Skills Improvement Service must be given adequate funds to meet those challenges.
Our next job will be to take this forward in the next stage of the review and to ensure that employers meet their CPD obligations.
You can read more about the IFL issue and the independent review here: www.ucu.org.uk/iflfee