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Respect FE FAQs

28 July 2023

We have prepared extensive FAQs on the Respect FE campaign on pay, workload, professionalism and binding national negotiations. This FAQ is being continually updated by UCU staff so please check back regularly.

Taking strike action

When will strike action take place (in November 2023)?

The elected representatives on UCU's further education committee (FEC) called three strike days over the Respect FE dispute on the following dates:

  • Tuesday 14 November 2023
  • Wednesday 15 November 2023
  • Thursday 16 November 2023

Which further education colleges are participating in strike action?

You can check here for the full list of further education colleges in England that are participating in strike action.

Who decided on the current course of action?

UCU is a member-led organisation where decisions are made by UCU members themselves. The democratic bodies of the union (including the annual Congress, sector conferences, and the national executive committee which is subdivided into the further education committee and the higher education committee) decided on what forms of action to take, when to take it, and for how long. 

This is a summary of key events:

  • The elected representatives of the further education committee (FEC) met on 28 April 2023 and made a number of important decisions regarding the FE England Respect FE campaign (2023-24):
    • FEC considered the very impressive results of UCU's Respect FE electronic consultation of English further education colleges in both aggregate and disaggregate form and discussed how the results provide a firm foundation to move to national action in support of the Respect FE claim and campaign for 2023-24
    • FEC discussed the outcome of the voting on motions at the special further education sector conference (FESC) and how these will shape the campaign. You can read an update on the FESC here
    • FEC debated the failure of the Association of Colleges (AoC) to make an offer at the recent national joint forum negotiations and you can read a joint statement here
    • FEC then agreed on the next steps in building the biggest and most effective Respect FE campaign and industrial action strategy that pulls together the e-consultation results and the special FESC decisions.
  • UCU's Respect FE statutory industrial action (postal) ballot of English further education (FE) colleges opened on 5 September 2023 and closed on 10 October 2023; the results are available here. UCU members in 32 employers gained a legal mandate for action after crossing the 50% turnout threshold and voting YES, and their employers faced the prospect of hard-hitting strike action over pay, workloads, and national bargaining
  • UCU branches with successful strike mandates met at a strike committee meeting on 18 October 2023
  • elected representatives on UCU's FEC met on 20 October 2023 to consider branch feedback and decide on potential strike action; strike action could only be formally called by FEC
  • UCU has a six-month live mandate (until April 2024) to call action if the industrial dispute is not resolved to the satisfaction of UCU members. 

All strike dates/patterns are authorised/signed off by the elected FE officers. You can click here for a list of current FEC members (UCU membership login required) and you can contact current NEC/FEC members here.

When we take strike action, what am I expected to do?

Your union only takes strike action once every other avenue of influence has been exhausted and when the democratic decision-making bodies of the union believe there is no other way to make employers change their position.

It is a very serious sanction and that is why we ask that every member observes the strike. Every member who does not observe the strike is directly undermining the union's bargaining power and making it harder for the union to protect all its members. Every member who does observe the strike is helping to advance the interests of all staff throughout the sector.

When we call a strike, we ask that members do not do any work for all of the days specified by the union. This includes, for instance, time before 09:00 and after 17:00, and includes any activity which is part of your work such as teaching, administration, meetings, emails related to work, marking, and activities where you are directly or indirectly representing your employer. It also means not doing any preparation for work that you are due to do when you return to work after you strike. In a nutshell, if you are employed at one of the institutions on strike, do not do any work at all on strike days.

Print materials and paraphernalia will be delivered to all FE branches involved in the strike action. Your branch will have a plan for action at a local/institutional level, so please volunteer to support your branch in activities. There are also resources on the Respect FE page and a series of national online and in-person events (for example the rally on Tuesday 14 November). Please pay attention to communications from UCU's campaigns team and attend these events. One of the simplest and most helpful things you can do is email or message (e.g. Signal/Telegram/WhatsApp) 5-10 UK-based colleagues in your professional network, asking them if they are aware of the union's Respect FE campaign and industrial action. You can also use social media—for example Twitter, Facebook, Instagram—to spread the word, but one-to-one personal contacts are the most effective means of increasing participation.

On strike days, the best possible thing you can do is contact your UCU branch and volunteer to help at the picket lines—and ask colleagues in your college to join you. Picketing is a vital opportunity to demonstrate to the employer the scale of the disruption that the union is able to cause, and get support for your action from students and other colleagues.

What about my students?

UCU is a union of education professionals and we know that our members do not relish taking industrial action that affects our students, to whom you have dedicated so much of your energy, even during extremely challenging conditions like the Covid-19 pandemic and national lockdown. It is the same for many public services—doctors and nurses for instance.

However, if you take industrial action, you are making a case for greater investment in or defence of the quality of the education you provide. In the case of job cuts and rampant casualisation, for example, the union rightly argues that our students are hurt far more by management's actions than by our own. Participating in an industrial action ballot and observing industrial action are defending the interests of staff and students alike—staff's working conditions are the students' learning conditions. Undermining the industrial action ballot and strike action might feel like the right thing in the short term, but will only serve to embolden management and staff and students will all suffer even more in the longer term.

Formally, it is management's responsibility to explain to students if classes are to be cancelled on strike days. However, you may wish to talk to your students before any industrial action, explaining why the union is taking this step and asking them to write to management to voice their concerns. You may also wish to discuss some of the practicalities which your students may not be familiar with—in particular, the fact that when you go on strike you will not be paid by your employer, or the fact that legal, official industrial action is preceded by a statutory industrial action ballot of trade union members.

Do I have to tell my employer in advance that I am taking strike action?

No. It is often the case that management will send out emails/letters demanding that you declare in advance whether you will be taking industrial action. This can have the effect of misleading and intimidating members, and will enable your employer to minimise any disruption.

You are under no obligation to inform management in advance as to whether you will be taking part in strike action. UCU will provide your employer with all the information about the action required by law including those categories of members who we are calling on to take action.

Once you are back to work following the strike action, you should respond truthfully to any query from your employer as to whether you have taken industrial action on specific days. You should not, however, respond to any such query while you are on strike.

If I have external commitments on the day(s) of strike action; should I attend them?

If your external commitments arise from your employment with the institution where a strike is taking place, whether they are offline or online, then you should not fulfil them. For example, if you were due to attend a conference/event in your capacity as a member of staff at a strike-bound college you should not go.

I am not a UCU member; can I take part in strike action?

On strike days, we would like everyone to respect the picket lines and not go into work. Non-union members (but not members of unions other than UCU) who take part in legal, official industrial action have the same rights as UCU members not to be dismissed as a result of taking action. However, our strong recommendation is that you join UCU so that you have the protection of a trade union before you take part in industrial action.

If you have recently joined UCU and have provided the details requested on the UCU member application form, your UCU membership will be active from the date of application. This means that you are able to take part in any strike action while awaiting your membership number.

How late can someone join the union and still take part in strike action?

Individuals can join UCU at any point up to and including on the picket line on the day of strike action and lawfully participate in the strike.

I am not a UCU member; can I refuse to cross the picket line?

We would like everyone to respect the picket lines, whether they are a member of UCU or a member of another union. If you are eligible to join UCU we recommend that you join the union, on the picket line if necessary, and do not cross the picket line. We will support any member who is subject to disciplinary action for refusing to cross a UCU picket line.

I am an agency worker; what should I do?

If you are employed to work at a college through an agency, then you could not be covered by the industrial dispute and could not legally take part in any industrial action. However, there are still ways you can support your colleagues:

  • send messages of solidarity to striking colleagues
  • explain to agency colleagues the reasons for the dispute and why you support it
  • visually show support e.g. badge wearing, posts on social media
  • work from home / alternative venues if you can on strike days and join the pickets before work
  • do not work outside of your contract or take on work you are not trained to do to cover the work of any staff on strike
  • do not volunteer to cover teaching or other work for others undertaking industrial action if approached
  • do not engage in voluntary activities outside the formal requirements of your contract
  • if you are able, make a donation to the UCU fighting fund.

I am on probation; can I participate in striking?

College staff, regardless of probationary status, have the right to participate in official, legally sanctioned industrial action. It should have no negative impact on employment or 'confirmation in post'. If your employer or manager has threatened to fail your probation as a result of participating in official, legally sanctioned industrial action, please contact your UCU branch and/or the relevant regional office.

I am on sick leave or health-related absence during the strikes; what should I do?

If you are on sick leave or health-related absence during the strikes, you should continue your recuperation at home. If you are under pressure from your employer or management to return to work from sick leave or health-related absence early (e.g. in order to cover for striking colleagues), please contact your UCU branch and/or the relevant regional office.

I am on study leave during the strikes; what should I do?

If your leave is unpaid, you have no paid labour to withdraw and cannot join the strikes. If your leave is paid, you should join the strikes.

I am booked to be on annual leave during the strikes; what should I do?

If your annual leave is essential, you should take it as planned and consider donating to the fighting fund. If your leave is not essential, you may wish to move it so that you can participate in industrial action alongside colleagues.

I will be working outside the United Kingdom during the strike; what should I do?

While the legal position varies depending on where you will be, UCU's advice is that, if you are working outside the United Kingdom on a strike day, you should work normally and donate to the fighting fund. If you are due to travel as part of your work on a strike day, you should not do so.

I am retired or retiring soon; what should I do?

If you are fully retired, and you have no contract of employment with the further education institution going on strike, then you have no paid labour to withdraw and do not participate in industrial action. You can however support striking workers in the following ways:

If you are retiring in the future or planning your retirement, but you are not yet fully retired, you continue to be an employee at your college (holding a full or partial contract of employment). You should therefore participate in industrial action to support your colleagues. There are no 'exemptions' from striking for staff who are near retirement.

I am a member of staff applying for indefinite leave to remain (ILR) or a Tier 2/5 visa holder or a Tier 4 visa holder. What is the law regarding industrial action for migrant workers?

In recent years, UCU won important protection for staff on visas so that they could take lawful strike action without affecting their visa status. However, we recognise that many members who want to support the union have ongoing concerns about the issue and so we have produced a separate briefing/FAQs which explains your legal rights if you are a staff member or student on a visa or who may apply for an indefinite right to remain in the UK. UCU is committed to supporting all our members in industrial action so if, having read the briefing, you are still concerned about the impact of the strikes upon your immigration status, please contact the UCU national head of equality and policy.

What is the law on picketing?

The purpose of the picket is to persuade workers peacefully not to cross our picket lines i.e. not to go into work. Picketing is a legal activity and picketers should wear an armband indicating that they are on duty.

Picketing should be carried out at or near an entrance or exit from a site at which the pickets work; placards and posters should be displayed stating 'OFFICIAL PICKET'. When others who are not in dispute come into work or use these entrances or exits, pickets must not interfere with them. Please be sensitive towards students who may not be familiar with trade unions, industrial disputes, or picket lines. Note that it is a criminal offence for pickets to use threatening or abusive behaviour to people crossing the picket line. You can read UCU's picketing guidance here.

I am a UCU member in a non-striking institution or employed in a different education sector; how can I help?

If you are a UCU member at an institution that is not involved in the strike action, or if you are a UCU member employed in a different education sector (say you are employed in a higher education institution or a university), there are still many ways that you can help.

You can raise awareness of our disputes by disseminating our campaign materials to your colleagues, you can send messages of solidarity to the UCU branch of a striking college or on social media using the hashtag #RespectFE, and you can also make a donation to our fighting fund to provide direct support to UCU members at striking institutions.

Note that it is against the law in the United Kingdom to take part in 'sympathy action' or 'secondary action' (going on strike in sympathy with people who work for a different employer).

What is the so-called 'virtual picket line' or 'digital picket line'?

On strike days, UCU members will be involved in the concerted stoppage of all work--this includes any online or electronic work carried out via email and the internet (e.g. answering work-related emails, planning classes/teaching, any online administrative activities, delivering/attending work-related webinars/training sessions).

On strike days, many UCU members also do not publicise anything work-related or promote any activities at their institutions on social media (e.g. not sharing any institutional news, events, conferences, seminars, teaching, projects, job openings). This is sometimes referred to as a 'virtual picket line' or 'digital picket line'.

Strike action: impact on pay and pensions

Will participating in strike action affect my entitlement to statutory maternity pay (SMP)?

If you are on maternity or parental leave, or any form of long-term absence, please contact your UCU regional office.

How will it affect my pension if I participate in striaction?

Teachers' Pensions Scheme (TPS): usually strike days are counted as 'days out' meaning that they, in effect, become invisible. You do not accrue reckonable service and you will not pay contributions for strikes days, but your pensionable service is not broken.

It is not possible to buy back those days lost but members may wish to increase their pension by buying 'additional pension' or additional voluntary contribution (AVC) arrangements.

Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS): In a similar way to TPS, you do not accrue reckonable service during strike days.  You can, however, buy back those days by paying Additional Pension Contributions.  The cost of purchasing the additional days would fall on you unless your employer agreed to contribute. Further details can be found here.

My employer has told me that I will lose core pensions rights such as death in service if I take part in strike action; is this true?

From time to time, individual employers seek to intimidate staff by saying that if they should die while taking strike action, they will not receive a death in service payment.

Teachers' Pensions Scheme (TPS) regulations are explicit on this matter and do not allow for this to be case. In fact the TPS website clearly states that TPS 'members remain covered for the "in-service" death grant if they die while on strike'.

For members in the Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS), as with TPS, you remain an active member of the scheme whilst on strike action and therefore under regulations entitled to death in service benefits. For both TPS and LGPS death in service is calculated on normal pay.

You should notify UCU if you are threatened in any way and your local branch will take the issue up on your behalf.

Am I breaking my contract by taking strike action?

All industrial action—other than 'working to contract' as part of action short of a strike—is a breach of your contract of employment. Because UCU has carried out a statutory industrial action ballot and the action has been formally called, the law protects workers from dismissal while taking part in lawful industrial action or at any time within twelve weeks of the start of the action and, depending on the circumstances, dismissal may also be unfair if it takes place later.

Can my employer deduct my pay when I take part in industrial action, and how much money will I lose?

Yes, your employer is entitled to deduct your pay if you participate in industrial action. For strike action, the union contends that any deduction should be at 1/365th of any annual salary or equivalent. For part-time staff or those employed on a session-by-session basis, deductions should only reflect the pay normally due for the work not undertaken and no more.

UCU members can perform their own calculations and estimate how much of their pay might be deducted, by using online tools such as The Salary Calculator. Members can insert their own tax code (which usually appears in their pay slips), student loan repayments, pension contributions (for example TPS or LGPS contributions), and other details. Please note that users may need to look under 'Additional Options' to obtain the 1/365th of annual salary or equivalent.

What if I work part-time?

UCU believes that any strike deduction must be pro-rata for part-time staff. The deduction must only be for your contracted hours. Please contact your UCU branch for support in challenging any greater loss.

What if I am on a phased return to work?

If you are on full pay during a phased return to work, then deductions for strike action should be made at 1/365th of annual salary or equivalent.

If you are only being paid a percentage of your salary for your phased return to work, then UCU believes that any strike deduction must be pro-rata. Please contact your UCU branch for support in challenging any greater loss.

Will the union be offering strike pay and what are the details on the UCU fighting fund?

Yes, you can claim from the UCU fighting fund. Please click here for the latest guidance.

The criteria for accessing UCU's national fighting fund and the level of payment were determined and authorised by the elected UK officers—usually the immediate past president, president, president-elect, vice president, and honorary treasurer. If you have any questions about the UCU fighting fund specifically, please contact the UCU fighting fund team.

UCU is also a partner of Education Support, which offers counselling, support, financial assistance to UCU members.

The demands of the Respect FE dispute

Which colleges are involved?

Click here for a list of further education colleges in England which are involved in the Respect FE campaign (2023-24).

Please note that FE colleges in Northern Ireland, Wales, and the Crown Dependencies (the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man) follow different bargaining processes and timelines. Staff in FE colleges in Scotland are usually represented by the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS).

What are the key demands of the Respect FE campaign (2023-24)?

The joint FE trade unions in England (GMB, NEU, UCU, UNISON and Unite) submitted our pay claim 2023-24 to the Association of Colleges ( AoC) for this year's pay negotiations, which started in April 2023 and there are full details here. The headlines are: 

  • a 15.4% pay rise

  • action on workloads

  • binding national negotiations

  • a Just Transition Commission for FE

Why are UCU members demanding a 15.4% pay rise?

UCU members are demanding a 15.4% pay rise (January 2023 RPI plus 2%) because FE England pay has fallen by 35% in recent years, despite staff experiencing a surge in living costs:


Association of Colleges
pay recommendation

Cost of living increase
(as measured by RPI)



















Recent increases to central government funding for 16-19 education and capital investment have been accompanied by an undeniable improvement in the state of college finances. In fact, the sector is currently enjoying the highest levels of income, and on average reserves and cash in the bank have been increasing.

The FE sector in England has entered a period of financial stability and relative prosperity and the indicators suggest this will last for at least another three years. Colleges need to put this money into staff pay rather than hoarding cash or prioritising capital spending.

Why is the Respect FE campaign also focusing on workloads?

UCU's 2021 workload survey of members (published June 2022) shows that:

  • 41% say their workload is mostly or entirely unmanageable
  • 81% say the pace and intensity of work has increased significantly
  • 47% of college staff working hours have increased significantly in the past 12 months.

Excessive and unmanageable workloads are all too prevalent in the FE sector, and in fact FE staff effectively work on average two days for free each week. The impact of staff is significant, and we demand meaningful negotiations on effective national agreements which would include:

  • an agreed national policy on the delivery of guided learning hours
  • the resourcing of more administration and support staff
  • nationally agreed class size recommendations
  • well-being and workload protocols.

Why are the unions demanding binding national negotiations?

The outcomes of national negotiations with the Association of Colleges (AoC) are a source of frustration for the trade unions. Unlike other parts of the United Kingdom where teachers' pay and FE pay is linked, in England it is a 'free for all' and the outcomes of national talks with AoC are not binding and FE colleges in England have no requirement to implement the final offer made. As a result, colleges often ignore AoC's recommendation and staff in FE England have suffered some of the worst pay cuts when compared to other educational workers.

The model is obviously broken and the current practice is unacceptable and must change. All staff should get the same pay increase and other nationally agreed outcomes from national negotiations. The reclassification of FE into the public sector offers the opportunity to move to a more coherent and meaningful basis for national level negotiations as they happen in Wales and Scotland.

What is a 'Just Transition Commission for FE' and why is it necessary?

The climate crisis is real and a 'Just Transition' means moving to a more sustainable economy in a way that is fair to everyone. We need to transition to new skills and forms of work if we are to find a long-term future for the further education sector. The unions are proposing a joint Just Transition Commission for FE to start to address the climate crisis and reposition FE to meet the environmental, skills and employability challenges that need to be addressed. We want to work towards:

  • a representative commission that gives a voice to under-represented and marginalised groups
  • protected funding as colleges move towards decarbonising targets
  • protection for jobs as we move away from certain areas of study and towards new areas
  • preparing the workforce for 'climate proofing'
  • working with other local trade unions and networks to identify skills gaps and identifying opportunities for employment within FE
  • identification of training and professional development needs
  • utilising a green new deal to support more sustainable employment models
  • identifying regional workforce needs and opportunities in order to sustain local economies and reduce travel impact
  • time off for trade union environmental reps.

    Other matters

    What do I do if I have a question that is not covered in this FAQ?

    This FAQ will be continually updated by UCU staff. If you have a pressing question that is not covered here, please contact the UCU campaigns team and we will either reply to you directly or provide a response in this FAQ.

    Please also note that it is generally not possible for a FAQ document to cover the often unique circumstances of every individual. For casework support or for advice tailored to your precise circumstances, please contact your branch or the relevant regional office. For questions pertaining to your membership record and data, please contact the membership department.

    Last updated: 21 March 2024