Sixth-form college employers have made an 11th-hour bid to ministers for cash to avert the first-ever pay freeze in the sector.
Repeated appeals to Margaret Hodge and Alan Johnson, her successor as further and higher education minister, have so far failed to resolve the cash crisis. This was brought about by unexpected demands on the 19 per cent record funding increase for colleges announced last autumn.
Mounting debts, and rising national insurance and pensions costs, have all but swallowed the extra cash. Also, the Sixth Form Colleges Employers'
Forum says the Learning and Skills Council set aside too little for the third year of a salary deal that saw the introduction of performance-related pay.
The row has been rumbling on since the spring, but reached a crescendo in July when it became clear that some colleges would be left with deficits of up to pound;400,000 this financial year. Last week, the SFCEF had its first meeting with Mr Johnson which, college leaders say, saw "an amicable exchange but no guarantees".
But the full depth of feelings among all the employer organisations and teacher unions is reflected in a joint four-page letter to the minister. It points out that the increase announced last November by Education Secretary Charles Clarke was supposed to help narrow the funding gap between schools and colleges.
The letter says: "It is disturbing to find that the funding improvement for colleges has not materialised and that colleges are actually in a worse position on funding than they have been for years."
A conference of sixth-form college leaders next Wednesday will decide what scope there is to recommend a pay increase.
Sue Witham, head of the SFCEF secretariat, said: "We do not want to overreact - there are signs from some colleges that a little extra money is filtering through from the LSC."
But several principals told FE Focus that it was too little too late and that there was not a consistent approach across the 47 local LSCs.
Various measures have been employed by the LSC, including a top-up element and local discretion over funding where colleges have huge deficits. But none has worked so far.
The letter to Mr Johnson, former general secretary of the Union of Communication Workers, comes from the national Joint Council for Staff in Sixth Form Colleges. It points out that one of the strengths of sixth-form colleges has been that national negotiations have worked to ensure good industrial relations.
"Our recommendations are followed by every college," the letter says. "We do not want to see the national negotiations affected by this funding crisis and we do not want to fall behind schoolteachers' pay again either because colleges cannot match the 2.9 per cent award or are in difficulty implementing the new pay structure."
Ms Witham said: "We will be taking a cool look at this next week but, if colleges do not feel they have sufficient money, then we may have to say we can make no recommendation on pay."
In July, David Igoe, vice chairman of the SFCEF and principal of Cadbury College, told FE Focus: "This issue could also have repercussions for the national negotiating machinery itself as colleges decide individually to opt out of the SFCEF."