A major rift opened this week between lecturers and the recently-merged further education superbody, raising doubts over how far the organisation can claim to represent the whole sector.
The Association of Colleges firmly aligned itself with employers by supporting moves by the majority of colleges to ignore a nationally recommended pay rise for lecturers.
A survey by the lecturers' union NATFHE revealed that over half of colleges responding have opted not to pay the 2.4 per cent recommended by employers after negotiations with unions earlier this year, with a substantial minority imposing a wage freeze. A minority of wealthier colleges were topping up the figure.
Prospects for colleges finding extra cash to fund rises look bleak, according to a separate TES FE Focus national survey on enrolments (see page 28).
Colleges said they were already raiding often depleted reserves to spend on student support including hardship grants, transport and reduced fees.
Some are calling for the annual August pay review to be postponed until after enrolments are confirmed in early November in order to be more sure of their financial position before deciding wage increases.
AOC chief executive Roger Ward said the organisation was "eminently relaxed" over the unprecedented departure from agreed levels, insisting wage rises must be increasingly tied to each college's circumstances and ability to pay. He denied union claims that pay levels were damaging staff recruitment.
His stance will infuriate lecturers, most of whom have reluctantly signed up to new contracts increasing their hours and cutting holiday entitlement. Many will see his response as proof of their suspicions that AOC, formed from the merger of Colleges Employers' Forum and Association for Colleges, is very much the child of the employers' organisation.
Mr Ward, former CEF chief executive, denied suggestions that AOC was failing to represent the entire FE sector, including lecturers.
He said: "We have world-class lecturers on world-class conditions of employment working for a world-class sector. AOC represents their interests, students' interests and the national interest."
NATFHE this week appeared to hold out little hope of reversing the colleges' plans.
A national day of action over pay planned by the union for October 15 has been cancelled in favour of a nationally-coordinated week of protests in late November. The action will focus mainly on highlighting claims of Government underfunding of further education.
Both sides insist national pay negotiations will continue, even if employers treat recommendations as a guideline figure rather than a hard and fast rule. However, in practice the union's activity at local level will increase. West Midlands regional officer Paul MacKney said: "We are not formally in local bargaining but we are certainly into local damage limitation on pay."
NATFHE negotiating secretary Sue Berryman acknowledged colleges, many of whom are making pay rises contingent on meeting enrolment targets, were not withholding cash as a backdoor route to productivity-related pay.
She said: "Sometimes their situation is so desperate and the amount of leeway is so small that unless they know they will get their numbers and so get the first tranche of funding in November the money for rises just won't be there."
The TES survey shows many colleges are already topping up FEFC and private cash to provide other central services. The two highest-cost areas were improved accommodation and costly new student advisory services. The costs of advertising courses had almost doubled, in some cases to Pounds 100,000.
Gerald Imison, deputy general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said his union's findings backed up NATFHE evidence that pay rises were being delayed by cautious colleges. He blamed the mechanism used to distribute funds in the FE sector which ensures cash is strongly dependent on enrolments, but added: "The real issue is there is not enough money in the national pot to pay lecturers the salary they deserve".