An estimated 25 per cent of lecturers are employed part-time. In some colleges, the figure is well over 60 per cent. It is also set to increase substantially as market forces demand more one-off courses to meet the needs of individual employers and other consumers. The overwhelming majority of part-time lecturers are women.
Michael Portillo, the Employment Secretary, had threatened to challenge Brussels rules giving part-time employees equal rights to full-timers. However, he backed down in the face of a Lords' ruling on redundancy claims and unfair dismissals.
The Colleges' Employers' Forum and the unions are due to start negotiations on part-time contracts in the second week of January. The breakthrough decision, which also sees a resumption of talks on the main contracts, came after the CEF backed off from a legal battle with the lecturers' union, NATFHE, over part-timers' employment rights.
Negotiating secretary Sue Berryman said: "The Government's decision is a major advance for us. The view the CEF has taken is that if anything needs to be done in law then they will do it.
"We can now get down to negotiating on the whole range of rights, including sick pay, maternity leave and holidays."
It would not solve all the problems of the wider two-year dispute over contracts for full-timers, she warned. "But it creates a new climate which should help us overcome some of the complexities we face."
Roger Ward, chief executive of the CEF, agreed that the most dramatic impact would be on the changes from the social legislation. "The CEF wants to make rapid progress on these, regardless of our separate dispute over contracts. A lot of colleges have already given equal rights to part-timers."
Both sides agree that the biggest stumbling block is in calculating the numbers of lecturers in part-time employment. No central statistics have ever been kept. The national figure is understood to be around 25 per cent. But more recently colleges have admitted to a far higher dependency on part-timers.
A recent attempt by NATFHE to call a national strike against the employers over the new contracts failed because the union did not name all the individuals who were balloted for action, or who were likely to be called out. However, in the process, the college which challenged the union's move, Blackpool and the Fylde, published its staff list, showing that 300 were full-time and 500 part-time.
The union has since monitored employment status in other colleges, showing that the number of part-timers is much higher than initially expected.
All will benefit from the new conditions to be negotiated since the Government climbdown, NATFHE says.