In a tacit admission that collective bargaining for the sector as a whole is a thing of the past three claims will be submitted by the lecturers' union NATFHE within the next two weeks.
The union will present claims for FE lecturers - its core membership - and also for management spine staff and those in adult education who are employed by local authorities.
But the employers have already made pre-emptive moves, warning of very poor prospects for any rise and insisting they cannot meet the union before the end of April.
A recent survey for members of the Colleges' Employers' Forum shows that most colleges do not expect to have any cash for a pay rise this year.
Union leaders have accused the employers of deliberately stalling over proposed talks. Fawzi Ibrahim, vice-chair of NATFHE's industrial relations committee, said: "They are obviously not serious about negotiating our claim."
The union says the move to three separate claims is an attempt to ensure the two smaller sectors do not feel their interests are absorbed by those of the largest main grade membership group.
But it also reflects an acknowledgement that local authorities, in the process of abandoning the old Silver Book contracts for lecturers in adult education, will negotiate on a different basis from colleges.
NATFHE members employed by local authorities roundly rejected a contracts offer earlier this year. In a ballot, more than three to one voted for industrial action over the proposed terms and conditions.
The new three-tier pay claim will also allow the union to opt to ballot each group separately over industrial action if its claim is not met. Last year, the presence of management as part of the same pay deal was said by many to have weakened the push for industrial action.
A NATFHE source said: "Lecturers who are also low-grade managers already perceive themselves as part of management. This helps each individual group to feel the union is acting just for them."
All three sectors are now meeting separately to hammer out their claims for the 1996-97 academic year, with the aim of submitting them as early as possible. The adult education claim was due to be decided this week. Claims for the management and main-grade staff submissions are due to be decided next Friday.
The union has not met the CEF for around five months. It says it has opted to direct its energies into forging local contracts agreements in individual colleges.
Roger Ward, chief executive of the CEF, said the move was a reaction to the exodus of management grade members from NATFHE to the Association for College Management, whose membership had risen from 1,000 to 3,000 since colleges went independent of local education authorities in 1993.
"They feel a desperate need to identify NATFHE as a union for managers as well. I see no change of heart in their negative attitude to new contracts of employment."