Towards the end of last term, Bedford College advertised for two new programme managers. Such posts in community and basic education would be expected to command salaries of between pound;28,000 and pound;30,500, while pay between pound;29,500 and pound;32,000 was on offer for managing the curriculum for sports science, leisure and tourism.
The job of programme manager is often seen as the most lowlymanagement position in a college, so the salaries offered by Bedford were reasonably attractive. Many first-line managers with job titles such as programme or course leader struggle to earn much more than pound;20,000.
Two weeks after Bedford's advertisements appeared in 'The TES', Bridgwater College, Somerset, tried to recruit a programme manager in travel and tourism at a salary of pound;19,224-pound;25,080. Even allowing for the contrasting sizes of the two institutions, as well as Bedford's proximity to London, the difference in pay is considerable.
But who decides how much a manager in a further education college should earn, or what title an individual should hold? And is it possible to compare a job with an equivalent in another college?
In the case of principals or chief executives, as well as other senior postholders, remuneration is at the discretion of governing bodies. Other managerial salaries (including those of senior managers who, somewhat confusingly, are not seniorpostholders) are aligned to points on the national management pay spine.
Following managers' acceptance of a 3.3 per cent pay rise in June, the spine ranges between pound;25,790 and pound;61,170. Precise points are often decided by the immediate linemanager and may or may not be the result of a full job evaluation.
A recent survey by the Association of Colleges found that less than half of colleges (46 per cent) have job evaluation schemes; of these, only about half apply them to managers.
According to Sue Berryman, an assistant secretary at the lecturers' union Natfhe, it can be impossible to discover what status a manager holds simply by looking at their job title or salary. "It's such a muddle. I can't see a rationale, let alone fairness and transparency," she says.
Some colleges have retained the title of senior lecturer - harking back to the days of the Silver Book agreement which laid down pay and conditions pre-1993 - while others employ large numbers of programme leaders on fairly low points on the management spine. "Every college is a law unto itself," says Ms Berryman.
Confusion can sometimes arise over the way different colleges describe a post. In June, Walsall College of Arts and Technology advertised for a standards manager for key and basic skills with a salary between pound;28,870 and pound;31,246. In the same month, nearby Dudley College tried to recruit a key-skills manager with a salary of pound;24,168-pound;26,544.
Although adverts will sometimes outline the responsibilities involved, candidates may not find out exactly what the job entails, including the number of people they are expected to supervise, until they attend for interview. In some cases, such details remain a mystery until they take up the post.
The pay and status of first-line and middle managers is of increasing importance because of the difficulty that many colleges have persuading lecturers to take the jobs. This potential shortage, identified in May in a skills foresight survey by the Further Education National Training Organisation, is confirmed by the AOC's annual survey of pay aong middle managers and senior postholders.
Eighteen per cent of colleges found it difficult to recruit level four managers (normally heads of faculty or department) while 23 per cent said it was fairly difficult. Among all management levels, IT and management information posts were the hardest to fill, but colleges also experienced difficulty attracting finance and human resources specialists.
John Mowbray, general secretary of the Association for College Management, agrees that FE isstruggling to attract top-quality managers - mainly because the sector does not have sufficient money to offer attractive salaries at the same time as investing in education and training.
"I'm not saying chief executives are underpaid. If they are, it's their own fault because they negotiate separately with their board in the same way as all senior postholders," he says. "In terms of attracting other managers and staff into a college, there is a real problem, which we keep trying to explain to the Government."
Management structures vary from college to college. The responsibilities of first-line or middle managers may depend upon the make-up of a senior management team and the number of senior postholders.
Bodies such as the ACM should gain a better picture of precisely who is earning what when a new survey, commissioned by the National Joint Forum of college employers and unions, gets under way soon.
Mr Mowbray hopes this study will reveal whether there is any pattern to the way colleges define management roles. "My impression is that there is a great disparity depending upon the size of college and its financial circumstances," he says.
Sue Berryman points to the small differential between the pay on offer to main-scale lecturers and staff with first-line management posts. "Some people are referred to as managers but it's not unusual for them to spend 18 hours per week teaching," she says.
By the same token, a first-line manager may not be keen to accept further promotion. The AOC's remuneration survey shows the median base salary for level four - or middle - managers is only pound;29,994, although there are vast variations between colleges according to their size and location.
Richard Atkins, principal of Yeovil College, Somerset, has had relatively little difficulty recruiting seniormanagers during the past two years, but understands why some lecturers are unwilling to become middlemanagers.
"It is hard to attract people both internally and externally," he says. "People need persuading to stick their head above the parapet and take on a considerable amount of responsibility."
David Mason, principal of Coleg Gwent in South Wales, has witnessed the problems of recruiting managers in both the public and private sectors. Mr Mason, former director of recruitment and training at the Civil Aviation Authority, says one of the problems with FE is that it is tied to national salary scales which do not always equate to the calibre of person that a college wishes to attract.
"A college may reject a candidate simply because the person won't accept the rate for the job," he says. "In industry, there is more of a tendency to negotiate salaries."
With the exception of senior postholders, some of whom are on performance-related pay, most managers receive the same salary increase each year - regardless of how difficult it would be to fill their post if they left.
"To award different rates would be divisive, but that can make it quite difficult when you're trying to recruit in the marketplace for positions such as IT," adds Mr Mason.