With talks only just under way, the fast-growing Association for College Management, which represents 3,200 senior staff, has threatened to embarrass Colleges' Employers' Forum paymasters into fulfilling a promise to increase the differential on pay.
John Bolton, ACM national negotiator and principal of Blackburn College, said they would not put up with stalling on pledges. "Last year the CEF agreed differential pay but said it was unable to implement it. If it is unable to do so this year then we will register a refusal to agree."
This is more than a technicality. While it is unlikely to lead to anything as radical as the strike action threatened by the lecturers' union NATFHE, it might spark local non-co-operation.
"It could place the CEF and chief executive Roger Ward in a dilemma at a time of sensitive talks over the management of the merging CEF an AFC," said Mr Bolton.
Since incorporation there has been significant devolution of management tasks. The number of staff moving on to the management pay spine has risen sharply, to 40 per cent of full-timers in some colleges. There has been a corresponding surge in ACM membership.
With the Association for Colleges and CEF merger now approved, the race for control is between the two contenders who have so far declared - Mr Ward and AFC chief executive Ruth Gee.
Both the ACM and NATFHE will hope to force Mr Ward to make compromises and avoid a protracted dispute. The ACM has a significant number of principals as members who could influence the outcome of the contest.
Lecturers are poised for an historic departure from national pay negotiations. NATFHE wants a flat- rate Pounds 1,500 rise but the CEF offered 2.1 per cent to those on new contracts only. The ACM wants a widening of the gap between the pay spines for themselves and lecturers by at least 1 per cent.
But the ACM says that 4 per cent should be a minimum. It says its members have pushed through reforms and they are entitled to rewards. This must be reflected in a "realistic pay award".