Oaklands College in St Albans has between 600 and 700 part-time staff. Principal Keith Gardner said the college had not yet decided how many would be offered fractional permanent contracts giving the same rights as full-time colleagues, and had advised them "that they had nothing to lose and everything to gain by signing with ELS".
It is the first college to declare its deal with the ELS, which claims to have signed up more than 100 institutions who want the flexibility of agency staff. The lecturers' union NATFHE has not ruled out industrial action over the issue.
Mr Gardner said: "The situation is that more than 70 per cent of all our academic staff have signed the new higher productivity contracts. Inevitably, this has reduced the total volume of part-time work we require.
"We still need a flexible element of staffing, however, and have advised our part-time, hourly-paid staff to register with the agency. We will use ELS, but when and in what way is yet to be determined."
The move by Oaklands was condemned by NATFHE, which has negotiated a contract with the Colleges' Employers' Forum protecting the rights of part-time staff. Sue Berryman, negotiating secretary, said: "We are opposed to agency teachers coming into colleges in this way. Our representatives have been very successful in their efforts to dissuade colleges from taking up ELS.
"Our experience is that colleges are being very cautious about the scheme and I doubt if any would want to get into another confrontation with NATFHE over this. We would not rule out any action if it became a real issue."
The non-profit company was launched in the spring and endorsed by the CEF. The joining fee was initially Pounds 6,000, but earlier this month it pledged to cut the subscription to Pounds 5,000 if more than 100 colleges signed up - sparking speculation that take-up rates were below expected levels.
It aims to supply up to 40,000 self-employed lecturers for short and part-time courses, and proposes to pay them Pounds 10.29, Pounds 12.46, Pounds 19. 02 or Pounds 21.08 per hour according to age and experience.
The agency takes a 9 per cent fee for each lecturer assigned to a college and provides statutory sick pay and statutory maternity pay.
Geoff Lennox, chief director of ELS, scotched rumours that take-up in the FE sector was as low as 40 colleges. He said: "We should be through 100 fairly comfortably. In a number of colleges, contracts are now being exchanged and once that has taken place, we should be up to 150.
"None of the colleges who have signed up with us are sacking their part-time staff en masse. But lots of colleges have taken advice from the CEF that they should, in their normal manner, terminate the contracts of their part-time staff and then determine which ones to re-engage. This is common practice. "
However, despite his best efforts to quell the fears of principals and part-time staff, the sensitivity surrounding ELS looks set to continue.
One northern principal cited a common reservation: "We are concerned about the ethics of using the agency for supply staff, and will not be signing up. We are also concerned at the high visibility of the CEF in all of this. It would not send out the right messages to our staff.
"We do not think that a national agency would provide the type of service we want and we are fairly sceptical about the cost."