Most college principals believe the pay gap between school teachers and lecturers will never be closed - and they doubt that the Government will provide the cash needed.
A national survey of views about pay for FE Focus this week reveals that eight out of 10 principals are pessimistic about the future of pay. Seven out of 10 do not believe sufficient cash will be found to close the gap.
The survey shows colleges are increasingly competing for the best staff, with a pay gap emerging between best and worst-funded colleges.
Principals were unimpressed by Education Secretary Ruth Kelly's pledge last week that the funding gap between schools and colleges will be cut from 13 to 8 per cent in two years. The fact that this will involve cutting school sixth-form budgets only increased their scepticism. One principal said:
"Cutting school budgets does nothing to help us pay our bills."
Asked if pay bargaining should be local or national, half of principals said deals should be struck nationally and half college-by-college. Those supporting national bargaining also thought cash for staff salaries should be ring-fenced by the Government.
However, there were big regional variations, with 92 per cent of colleges wanting local bargaining in the South-west but only around 30 per cent in the North-east. Principals in regions that have historically been well-funded were most likely to back local deals.
The most popular reason to back local bargaining was that local circumstances demanded a flexible attitude to pay. Ian Pryce, principal of Bedford college, said: "We are independent and see ability to pay well as a source of competitive advantage."
But those backing national deals stressed the need to avoid "playing one college off against the other". Jim Crewdson, principal of Wigan and Leigh, said without unity of purpose "the sector will never achieve parity with other parts of the service".
Lack of cash for pay emerged as the biggest problem facing most of the 146 principals in England who responded to the survey. They said staff would simply leave for better pay and conditions elsewhere, increasing the gap between the best and worst colleges.
Even the minority of principals who expressed optimism over pay said this related only to their own college. Mike Snell, principal of Brockenhurst college, said: "Good well-run and confident colleges will always be successful and be able to reward accordingly."
The Association of Colleges says the Government's rigid approach to the wider funding of colleges is partly to blame. Also, pay settlements elsewhere in the public sector too often outstripped FE.
Sue Dutton, deputy chief executive of the AoC, said: "Collective bargaining is not binding on colleges, although most have accepted our recommendations over the 12 years since incorporation. When funding itself is flexible, most will pay the recommended rate if not more. All the evidence to us is that our members want national bargaining with flexibility to suit local circumstances."
Paul Mackney, general secretary of Natfhe, the lecturers union, said:
"Unless the gap with school pay is closed, we can look forward to unremitting industrial action.
"Also, if negotiations were local, the Government will always benchmark down to the lowest common denominator. Nor would employers have the national figures they need to plan costs.
"Local negotiations would absorb thousands of people in totally unnecessary work, taking time that would be better spent teaching."
Full survey: www.fefocus.co.uk