Staff shortages bite in colleges across the UK

A new UNISON survey shows the depth and impact of staff shortages in the further education sector

A new UNISON survey of almost 800 staff across further education roles in the UK found that nearly four in five (79.7%) were aware of shortages of support staff in their workplaces, and over half (53%) were aware of lecturer shortages.

The problem is particularly acute in England, with far more shortages being reported than in the devolved nations. In some regions (Eastern, Northern, South East, South West and West Midlands), over 90% of respondents reported support staff shortages.

When asked about the impact of these shortages, nearly a third of respondents (32.9%) said that it led to the mixing of class groups and, therefore, large classes. Another third (33.9%) said that it caused difficulties running essential services, such as kitchens and tech support. Furthermore, 36% said that learners with additional/special needs were left without support.

Breaking the figures down into job groups shows particular issues in key areas.

Among learning support assistants, 91% said there are shortages, with reports in some areas that learners are sent home when there are not enough teachers. Some learning support assistants also said they are ‘parachuted in’ to support learners with volatile behaviours who they have never met – putting them at risk.

Furthermore, 82% of facilities/cleaning staff reported shortages, with over two-thirds (68%) of them saying essential services are not running. And almost nine in ten (89%) of canteen staff said the kitchen service is unable to run properly.

Many staff also reported that they had been pulled away from their jobs to help run exams over January. Almost half (48.5%) of respondents had been asked to take on extra responsibilities since the start of the year and, of those, half (49.1%) have been asked to take on work that a higher paid member of staff would do, and almost one in five (17.2%) had been asked to take on unpaid overtime.

UNISON national officer for further education Leigh Powell said: “The problems we are seeing in colleges at the moment are not just a flash in the pan brought about by the pandemic.

“They are the result of over a decade of underinvestment in staff in the college sector. And the results of this survey show that the situation is deteriorating even further.

“For too long support staff numbers have been brutally slashed and pay held down at levels that put many into real hardship. Now staff and the young people they help are suffering the consequences.

“The government talks about levelling up and claims to be investing in skills. How can we level up when poverty pay persists in our colleges?”