New figures reveal that it has called formal ballots for industrial action in 42 per cent of colleges in the past six years.
Meanwhile the senior FE principal appointed to help Scottish colleges improve their management has called on colleagues to inspire enthusiasm rather than fear in staff and enter into partnership with the unions (see panel).
Speaking at the annual conference of human resource practitioners in FE, Marian Healy, further and higher education officer of the Educational Institute of Scotland, disclosed the latest figures, which also indicate that over the same period 28 per cent of colleges were hit by strike action, with 45 days' productivity lost.
Only one settlement was negotiated through the Acas conciliation service and Ms Healy commented: "FE college managements seem reluctant to engage the help of outside agencies. Perhaps they see this as an admission of weakness andor failure."
She said it was vital to work in partnership with the unions if colleges are to be a success story. It would not be easy or cheap, requiring time, resources and commitment. "Staff value being included and, if it is demonstrated that their opinions matter, they will have a sense of shared ownership of the outcome," Ms Healy said.
She pointed to the success of the collaboration between five of the Glasgow colleges (Anniesland, Clydebank, Cardonald, Langside and John Wheatley), the EIS and Unison, the public service union. The parties have reached agreement on staff leave, stress at work and education and training.
The documents were distributed as examples of good practice to all colleges, but Ms Healy said take-up had been "sadly" minimal.
One of the key factors in the Glasgow partnership had been the involvement of human resource experts from the colleges, Ms Healy said. "They did not have the same hang-ups as principals about making concessions to the trade unions. Rather they approached the policy formulation discussions from a perspective of fairness and equity, while also ensuring the outcomes could be applied equally to all staff groups.
"At no time did the process take on an adversarialnegotiating approach.
Unfortunately, not all college principals are so skilled."
A further development is an agreement between the Association of Scottish Colleges and the unions to produce policy guidelines for areas of work affected by legislative changes. Ms Healy said that she hoped this would pave the way for negotiating salaries and conditions collectively.
She pointed to the success of the Joint Negotiating Committee for Higher Education Staff, which operates on a UK basis. "If a sector as diverse as the UK higher education sector with 160 institutions and seven trade unions can grapple with the issues, surely 45 Scottish FE colleges can do likewise."
The HE committee had brought into one agreement 10 separate bargaining groups which existed for different staff grades and suc-ceeded in reducing more than 270 pay points to 92 by last August.
Ms Healy said: "The time is now right for a similar system to be introduced for FE colleges in Scotland. As pay determination is the single most demanding and costly management undertaking any college must engage in annually, I believe there is value in removing such an acrimonious element of local management decision-making to a national collective body, charged with the responsibility of setting pay levels and core conditions for all staff grades in FE.
"It is completely untenable for such a vital link in the educational chain in Scotland to be the only sector which does not benefit from a collectivepartnership approach to pay and conditions."
While there was stability in the school and HE sectors, FE presented a "volatile, destabilising, unproductive and costly scenario".