But the absence of national bargaining has led to wide variations in salary for staff doing the same job, which will add to the pressure for an investigation into staffing and pay along the lines of similar reviews carried out for UK universities and Scottish schools.
Figures collated by the College Lecturers' Association of the Educational Institute of Scotland show the average pay rise for 1999 was 3.1 per cent. This ranges from a no-strings 5 per cent (Banff and Buchan, Cardonald) to just over 2 per cent. Many colleges have added sweeteners to move the annual settlement date from April to August to coincide with the academic year.
There are virtually as many variations in awards as there are colleges. Angus has agreed an extra pound;1,000 for lecturers plus extra holidays. Anniesland is giving pound;690 plus an agreement to transfer temporary staff to permanent contracts. Borders lecturers will see salaries rise by 4 per cent, payment for tea breaks and a 4.30pm finish to the day.
Clydebank's increase is 5 per cent with the top of the lecturer scale moving from point 11 to point 12. Inverness and Kilmarnock have a formula of inflation plus 1 per cent. Reid Kerr in Paisley, subject of a financial rescue plan, has negotiated a 2.5 per cent increase with an extra pound;100 if it achieves an operating surplus of pound;50,000.
Fifteen colleges have already negotiated awards for the current year. "Things definitely are improving and we must acknowledge that," Marian Healy, EIS further and higher education officer, says. This may be partly due to the clearer funding arrangements brought in by the Scottish Further Education Funding Council.
The one exception which prevents last year having a 100 per cent record is Coatbridge, which has become embroiled in a wrangle with the CLA over the management's refusal to recognise it for bargaining purposes. Union members have rejected a 2.25 per cent rise from April last year to the end of this March, followed by another 0.75 per cent to buy out a move of the settlement date from April to October.
The Scottish Further and Higher Education Associationis recognised by the college but it too has failed to reach agreement.
Norman Williamson, Coatbridge's principal, said the offer was currently under review to "reconfigure" it, although he would give no further details. Unison has accepted virtually the same offer on behalf of non-teaching staff, Mr Williamson said, but he acknowledged that they were being asked to move their pay award date from August to October instead of April to October.
By contrast James Watt College in Greenock has struck another three-year deal with lecturers until 2003. This involves a 2 per cent increase payable in April and another 2 per cent from October, 2.15 per cent next April and the same amount from October, and a similar arrangement for 2002-03 which will pay out an extra 2.3 per cent at the same two stages.
Ironically, James Watt has chosen to be generous despite being labelled last year as one of those causing concern to the funding council. The college also emerges as paying the best salary to lecturers at the top of the scale who will earn pound;25,622 by next month, compared with the FE average of pound;24,170 (minus Coatbridge).
The worst payer for those at the top of the lecturer scale is Inverness College, which is trying to make savings of pound;500,000 this year to clear an accumulated deficit of almost pound;4 million. The top lecturer point is pound;23,317 - pound;2,300 less than a senior lecturer at James Watt.
The EIS has expressed particular concern that differentials for lecturers will have an adverse knock-on effect on pensions, and it is part of the union's ammunition to argue for a return to national bargaining. But Henry McLeish, Enterprise and Lifelong Learning Minister, has so far shown no inclination to buy the argument.
Although college chiefs do not speak with one voice on national bargaining, Graham Clark, principal at Inverness, said he supported its restoration and agreed with the EIS that "there is an issue whether people doing pretty much the same job should be paid at different rates".
Inverness, Mr Clark pointed out, has a particular problem in that the college has 34 staff whose salaries are conserved because their posts were restructured. "Although individual salaries may be lower, the actual wage bill for the college is quite high."