IT’S starting to feel like déjà vu. This week, staff from across Scotland’s colleges and universities have been left with no choice but to go on strike yet again, in what has become such an annual event that we might as well put next year’s strike dates in the calendar right now.

University staff across the UK from the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) will be striking as a result of the ongoing pay dispute that also resulted in the recent marking and assessment boycott (MAB), with university principals on six-figure salaries choosing to allow students to graduate without degrees over the summer instead of offering staff a fair pay deal.

This resulted in students turning up to graduation ceremonies to receive empty scrolls, causing severe visa issues for international students who were unable to update their visa status without their official degree classification, meaning some were even forced to leave the country.

UCU members at a number of universities will also be joined on strike later this week by support staff in the Unison trade union, who are also fighting for a fair pay deal after overwhelmingly rejecting an offer which was well below the rate of inflation.

Additionally, UCU members at the University of Stirling are also on an extended three-week strike as a result of punitive pay deductions made by the university during the MAB. The institution chose to disproportionately penalise staff taking part in the MAB, docking their pay by 50% despite the marking element of their jobs amounting to significantly less than 50% of their total workload.

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The basis of this punitive action was supposedly to reduce the disruption caused to students during the MAB, but given the substantial support for the UCU’s cause among students, it seems rather disingenuous to me to take such petulant action in our name. And it’s perfectly clear that this action has had the polar opposite effect and has now resulted in colossal disruption to thousands of students during freshers week and beyond.

If the university truly wanted to reduce disruption to students, they would end the strikes now by returning the pay they withheld. The fact that they haven’t shows their real agenda is to punish workers fighting for a fair wage. But is it any surprise when George Boyne – chair of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, which is responsible for negotiating with the trade unions – was caught telling colleagues he wanted staff taking part in the MAB to feel “pain along the way”?

As mentioned earlier, it’s not just university staff out on strike this week. Staff from the EIS-FELA union and Unison across all of Scotland’s further education colleges are taking part in rolling strike action this week, to be followed by targeted strike action in the constituencies of government ministers over the coming weeks. This is the eighth year in the past decade that college staff have had to take strike action.

While there are a number of parallels between the industrial action taking place in universities and colleges, the action being taken in colleges is somewhat different. This is because – as per the Scottish Government’s own website – colleges in Scotland are public bodies. This means that the buck doesn’t just stop with college principals – it also stops with the Scottish Government.

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The Scottish Government’s public sector pay strategy has had a commitment to no compulsory redundancies since 2007, yet as many as 100 staff members at City of Glasgow College face compulsory redundancy, along with one lecturer at Edinburgh College who was made redundant earlier this summer. These colleges are public bodies – so this is clearly a violation of the Scottish Government’s own policy.

The Scottish Government also says it provides “overall strategic direction to Scotland’s colleges”.

I can’t help but wonder if this overall strategic direction includes the union-busting tactics taken by some college employers, including punitive pay deductions against staff at at least one college taking part in the recent EIS resulting boycott over the summer, or briefings sent by at least one college principal (who, incidentally, is paid substantially more than even the First Minister) using anti-union language you’d more expect to see from the likes of Amazon or Starbucks than the head of a public body.

The Scottish Government wants Scotland to be a “fair work nation” by 2025, but this means nothing when workers that they are ultimately responsible for are being forced into industrial action just for a fair pay deal.

We should be proud that they’ve managed to (thus far) avoid strike action in our NHS, and it’d be disingenuous not to acknowledge some of the key steps forward the government has taken around raising the minimum wage for workers such as carers and public-sector apprentices. But the idea that Scotland in 2023 is anywhere close to being a fair work nation is frankly laughable.

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It’s easy for the Scottish Government to pass the buck to Westminster, but it’s simply wrong to suggest that there’s nothing more we can do to fix this, even within the current boundaries of devolution.

The Scottish Trade Union Congress (STUC) published an excellent report last December as part of their Scotland Demands Better campaign, which explored a number of options for more progressive taxation in Scotland to increase revenue and fund our public services. They found that the Scottish Government could raise billions of pounds in additional revenue each year through reforms to the tax system, opening the door to huge investment in public services and long-term, sustainable increases in public sector pay.

Tackling poverty was a key theme in Humza Yousaf’s first Programme for Government earlier this month. Colleges are essential pillars of so many (predominantly working-class) communities in Scotland. They are key to lifting people out of poverty. They’re also key to reskilling workers to meet the changing needs of the green economy – another major theme of the Programme for Government.

Scottish education can be truly world-class. Our universities are world-renowned, and our colleges open access to post-16 education to thousands who would never otherwise access it, but with strikes taking place year after year, staff and students alike are getting a raw deal.

It’s time for us to remind ourselves of the critical role our education system plays in creating a fairer, better future for Scotland. It’s time for the Scottish Government to take action and invest in our education – to invest in our future.