Although Henry McLeish, the Enterprise and Lifelong Learning Minister, has set his face against a return to national collective bargaining, Stephen Byers, the Trade and Industry Secretary, has agreed to promote a more collegiate approach by injecting pound;37,000 into a pound;90,000 "partnership at work" initiative, with the difference made up from college and union funds.
Anniesland, Cardonald, Clydebank, John Wheatley and Langside colleges have agreed to back the move, supported by the Educational Institute of Scotland and the Scottish Further and Higher Education Association representing lecturers and the MSF and Unison for support staff. The intention is that it should provide a template for other colleges.
Graeme Hyslop, principal of Langside College, said the project was not designed as a backdoor method of bringing back national bargaining - "although my personal inclination is that it should".
The move none the less reflects messages criticising the colleges' industrial relations record in reports by the National Audit Office and the Parliament's audit committee. These are almost certain to be reinforced in the FE management review from the Scottish Further Education Funding Council, which is due to report to ministers this month.
Mr Hyslop said the intention is to draw up a framework of best practice which can be spread throughout the sector, while allowing the autonomy of individual union branches and managements to continue. "Hopefully it will allow everyone to take yes for an answer," he said. "There are too many negatives kickig around in FE."
Grahame Smith, deputy general secretary of the STUC, which has brokered the move, acknowledged: "There was some suspicion at first about what the partnership was about." But, he said, the five colleges identified themselves largely by chance and the project is not intended to be exclusive to them. "We hope to share with the rest of further education both the inputs and outcomes."
College managers and unions each recognised that legislative changes, such as more family-friendly measures in the workplace and new employment laws, had to apply in colleges as elsewhere in the public sector.
The partnership initiative aims to establish in each of the five colleges "an improved working environment and stable industrial relations". One test of success will be whether staff believe the project has brought about such improvements. The colleges would then offer themselves as "exemplars".
Although the initiative is not regarded as a means of reviving collective bargaining, its backers hope it will streamline approaches to employment policies and perhaps cut personnel costs which are currently replicated in each of the 43 incorporated colleges.
One estimate, based on a minimum of six two-hour meetings on average to settle the annual salary negotiations, or 10 sessions at most, is that local bargaining costs between pound;5,964 and pound;7,300 in staff time per college. This implies a total of pound;250,000 to pound;300,000 for the sector as a whole - and that is just for salaries.
The project aims to reduce the numbers involved in discussions on employment policy issues from an estimated 50 across the five colleges to 21.
The STUC is to employ a project administrator to develop the partnership principles.