The way was open this week for a dramatic shift from national to local bargaining after NATFHE chiefs rejected a move to instruct branches to refuse to enter local deals.
The union is considering its next step after pay talks with the college employers' body stalled. At present, its official policy is still to stick to national negotiations, though the leadership has admitted "everything is on the table".
Signs that the policy could change have exposed divisions within NATFHE, whose hard-Left faction is deeply concerned at the prospect of abandoning national bargaining. But the Socialist Lecturers' Alliance, which wanted to maintain the status quo, saw its motion to the union's national executive committee narrowly defeated.
NATFHE leaders met to consider pay strategy after reaching stalemate with the Colleges' Employers' Forum, which is refusing to extend its pay offer of 2.1 per cent to those lecturers - roughly a third of the total - still on local authority Silver Book contracts.
Both sides are due to meet again within the next three weeks, and union leaders say they still hope for a settlement. They believe the CEF is prepared to negotiate and could raise its offer, though they admit it is unlikely to shift its stance on the Silver Book staff.
If no agreement is reached, the milestone move from national to local negotiations could be made, following the path already established over bargaining on contracts.
Fawzi Ibrahim, a member of the union's negotiating team, said: "The picture is now very simple. This is now the last chance for national negotiations to produce anything. If there is a breakdown we will have to take industrial action and consider the question of local negotiations on pay."
Union leaders also agreed to ballot members in September over industrial action if the talks with CEF founder.
They propose a programme of "escalating strike action" beginning with a one-day strike and national demonstration on October 8.
In practice, the question of pay and industrial action are entwined. The union cannot ballot any branch on action unless they have a dispute locally, and there can be no local dispute on pay without a local pay claim.
Both NATFHE and the CEF acknowledge that national agreement on pay is being held back through a lack of agreement on contracts. National talks on pay and conditions broke down completely last year, and settlements are now being reached in individual colleges.
Mr Ibrahim said: "If both sides address the contracts issue and reach some conclusions that may resolve the issue of pay."
Jefney Ashcroft, a national executive committee member, national negotiator and SLA member, insisted the union would stick with its current official policy of national bargaining.
If talks with the CEF failed, it would turn to industrial action, likely to mean strikes, in the autumn, she claimed. "The branches want national bargaining because they know where our strength is. If you have local bargaining you throw the weak to the wolves."
A CEF survey of members found 98 per cent were opposed to Silver Book staff receiving any pay offer, while nine out of 10 wanted to retain national bargaining. Colleges believe they can wring a tougher deal from the union by leaving negotiations to the traditionally combative CEF.
A year ago this week talks between the union and employers, brokered by conciliation service ACAS broke down. NATFHE proposed a two-year agreement on contracts and the setting up of a working group to examine new working practices.