Negotiations between the Colleges' Employers' Forum and the two unions NATFHE and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers ground to a halt when the two sides reached deadlock over pay for lecturers still on local authority Silver Book contracts.
But as NATFHE recommends its members to reject the CEF's offer and move to industrial action, the ATL says it is prepared to keep talking with employers over a deal for non-Silver Book staff.
The traditionally moderate ATL has already split from NATFHE over contracts, reaching an ACAS-brokered deal with the CEF for its 5,500 lecturer members while NATFHE remains in dispute.
The CEF refused to continue the stalled 1996-97 pay talks this week without a union agreement that Silver Book staff, whose pay has been frozen for two years, would be excluded for a third year from any settlement. NATFHE rejected the condition, and the way was blocked to negotiations on pay for the two-thirds of lecturers on new, locally-agreed deals.
In a move which could anger those colleges still without locally-agreed contracts but seeking to resolve their disputes, the employers turned down a union offer to reopen national contracts negotiations to break the pay stalemate.
NATFHE general secretary John Akker said the union proposed a series of nationally co-ordinated strikes, starting with a day of action on October 8.
But Gerald Imison, ATL deputy general secretary, said his union did not accept talks had broken down. "We want to adopt a realistic attitude. Our new contract members, working with conditions considerably inferior to Silver Book people, deserve some reward."
The CEF offered a 2.1 per cent pay rise to non-Silver Book lecturers. The unions had demanded a flat-rate Pounds 1,500 increase for all.
The move to industrial action following the breakdown will expose afresh divisions in NATFHE over whether pay deals should continue to be negotiated nationally.
At the NATFHE's annual national conference two weeks ago, delegates voted to maintain the union's official policy of national pay bargaining. However, an amendment to the resolution added the phrase "at this time", indicating moves by more moderate members to leave the way clear for branches to settle locally.
The union leadership denies claims from moderates that a nationally co-ordinated strike over pay will effectively involve local negotiation by the back door because branches will have to take action against individual corporations to stay within the law.
NATFHE national negotiating officer Sue Berryman said: "We have to involve local corporations but that does not mean there has to be a claim submitted locally."
But a prominent moderate NEC member predicted that even by July "a large number of colleges will have agreed settlements with their staff locally". Members would assess the cash situation in their own college before gauging whether they could gain from a national strike, he said.
He added: "This is an attempt to fight the contracts dispute again in the current pay round and I think it is doomed to failure."