One in seven further education lecturers is reckoned to be the victim of bullying resulting from bad management.
Government pressures for ever greater "efficiencies" and cost-saving measures have led to mass redundancies and the most sweeping devolution of management responsibilities experienced anywhere in the public sector.
Corroborative evidence of managers using intimidatory tactics comes from the Industrial Society, the college lecturers' union NATFHE, the TUC, the Campaign for Academic Freedom and Standards, occupational psychologists and a range of research projects.
College principals privately admit that they have witnessed a succession of bad practices. "Vigorous arm-twisting, bribery and threats - it's still happening. There's some awful industrial relations in FE and we know it, " said the principal of one of Britain's largest colleges.
NATFHE started investigating bullying after it emerged as a key cause of stress among lecturers in a recent independent survey it commissioned. Anecdotal evidence as to the extent of the problem is now emerging from regions and branches.
An exhaustive study of bullying in 60 occupations has been carried out by Professor Cary Cooper at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology. His research suggests that between 15 and 22 per cent of full-time lecturers have been victims at some stage in their careers.
And he believes there has been an alarming rise in incidents. "Lawyers I have spoken to report a large number of cases of bullying in FE colleges," he said.
The Health and Safety Executive has categorised bullying as "unacceptable behaviour" in the workplace after its own research suggested that such behaviour has cost 80 million working days and up to Pounds 2 billion in lost revenue every year.
Incorporation, tough target-setting by the Government, payment by results and increased workloads have all contributed to an age-old problem, said Professor Cooper. "Bad, poorly-trained and weak managers resort to aggression to hide their insecurity."
Professor Cooper and Andrea Adams, author of Bullying at Work: How to Confront and Overcome it, have both investigated the effects of bullying.
Victims become ill, they say. Sleeplessness, eating disorders, increased alcohol consumption, loss of self-esteem and loss of assertiveness are common.
Victims often blame themselves, become clinically depressed and show signs of mental illness. Numerous casualties of bullying in colleges who have spoken to The TES recently displayed some or all of these symptoms. They all felt that somehow they were partly to blame. One, Tim Hutchinson, agreed to go on the record (see story below right). He has since started his own research and found that bullies are surprisingly frank about their tactics - though they do not always realise what they are doing.
"Changes of line management present dangerous moments. New managers will often want to impose their will in completely unreasonable ways. One new college manager told me he intended to treat all his staff like naughty 14-year-olds until they knew who was boss."
This, Professor Cooper confirmed, is characteristic of the bully. "The fact is that - the pathological bully apart - it is a tactic the weak use to undermine the strong."
Colleges urgently need to take stock of training programmes and management practices, since the research suggests that in the clamour to devolve duties down to lower-paid, inexperienced staff, an army of incompetents could end up taking over FE.
Professor Cooper's forthcoming book on stress in teaching concludes that "the biggest cause is the way you are managed by your boss." This was also highlighted by the NATFHE survey which found that almost eight out of 10 of lecturers thought stress in colleges had reached unacceptable levels.
Pauline Smith, NATFHE's equal opportunities national official, said: "Bullying does not fall neatly into a harassment category. It includes sexual and racial discrimination, threats of redundancy or the sack, the withdrawal of car-parking spaces or cr che facilities."
Incidents of bullying in the workplace generally have reached such proportions that the Industrial Society last week ran a conference on the problems and how to tackle them. Andrea Adams, who spoke at the conference, identifies two "personality types" who bully. The first are people who feel insecure in their position and who bully to cover that insecurity, the second are those with an excessive need to control.
Both use a mix of overt and covert tactics. These include shouting abuse, criticising people in front of others, spreading malicious rumours, isolating staff by talking to them through third parties, and withholding information.