The deal on the national framework - hammered out after 12 days of negotiation - still has to be put to NATFHE'S 46,000 further education lecturers in the autumn. But it is a remarkable achievement that the two sides have finally been able to come together. The Association of Teachers and Lecturers, which has in past years been able to reach agreement with the AOC, has also agreed to the terms.
The employers have also offered a pay rise of 2.7 per cent for all lecturers and senior lecturers, on which there will be separate consultation.
NATFHE has been in dispute with employers since 1993 when the Colleges Employers Forum, which preceded the AOC, introduced new contracts of employment. These provided for unlimited teaching hours. Since then the union has negotiated some 200 local agreements which have limits on teaching hours.
This week's agreement has been possible because the AOC has dropped its confrontational stance now Roger Ward, its former provocative chief executive has gone. At the same time NATFHE is led by a new general secretary Paul Mackney who is determined to lead the union back to sanity.
The framework provides for a 37-hour working week, 50 days' holiday a year (including bank holidays), entitlement to five days staff development, and procedures for redundancy consultation and union recognition.
A key sticking point, NATFHE said, had been limits on the number of hours lecturers could be asked to teach annually and weekly. The framework limits teaching within a range of 800 to 880 hours yearly and 22 to 27 weekly.
There will also be joint working parties on pay structures, part-time workers, the use of agency staff and a staff handbook on personnel procedures.
Mr Mackney said: "Our members have always said they wanted to get back to national conditions. While we are not thrilled about what's on the table, it does represent a basic agreement on minimum standards for lecturers on which we can begin to build.
"We couldn't have gone this far if there wasn't a new climate and and a genuine desire for progress on both sides. We will put the case to the members and they will have to make the final decision."
Sue Dutton, acting chief executive of the AOC, was rather more upbeat. "We believe that the new agreement will ensure that colleges will have a flexible, professional and well-trained workforce that can meet the diverse needs of today's learners. That is why we have agreed a national framework which will ensure minimum standards for the employment of staff while leaving room for local circumstances.
"The agreement will put an end once and for all to the dispute which has frustrated the sector's ability to modernise its employment practices. "
The ATL said the battle should never have been with the employers. "It was the Government which was starving the sector of crucial funding, " said Gerald Imison, deputy general secretary. "We have consistently approached the difficulties of the sector by saying that dialogue, not confrontation, is the only way of gaining improvements for our members."