Negotiations to agree a landmark pay deal for FE teachers in Wales appear to have collapsed amid demands for longer holidays and fewer teaching hours, just months after an apparent breakthrough.
Talks have been ongoing for more than two and a half years to draw up a common pay and conditions contract for college staff across the country. Plans were first laid out in 2009 and became part of Welsh Labour's manifesto during the 2011 Assembly election campaign. Last October it seemed a deal was imminent, but a briefing paper published by ColegauCymru, the body that represents Wales' 19 FE colleges, now suggests that there is little hope of securing the deal.
It claims the trade union side - which includes lecturers' unions the UCU, UCAC, the NASUWT and the ATL, and those representing other FE staff, including Unison, Unite, GMB and the Association of Managers in Education - has rejected ColegauCymru's final offer.
The Welsh government has stayed out of the negotiations but had wanted a common contract to be agreed this month so it could be implemented in August. Its only stipulation was that the deal would not cost any extra money.
ColegauCymru says the proposals would cost FE colleges about #163;280,000 per year overall (0.07 per cent on a turnover of #163;450 million) - very close to being cost-neutral. But it says a number of trade union demands, including longer holidays, lower weekly teaching hours and less contact time for those teaching higher education, are unrealistic and unaffordable at a time of financial stringency.
It says each governing body must now decide its own course of action. John Graystone, chief executive of ColegauCymru, told TES that after 40 meetings and 24 drafts of the contract it could not offer any more. "We entered these negotiations in good faith, and made compromises a number of times along the way," he said. "We offered a fair and reasonable contract but we can't go on negotiating forever."
Rebecca Williams (pictured), who chairs the joint trade union side of the negotiations, urged ColegauCymru to return to the negotiating table. "We are surprised and deeply disappointed that ColegauCymru appear to have unilaterally ended the negotiations," she said. "The national contract would be of immense benefit to staff and colleges. We've made it clear that we're prepared to continue negotiations and that we're optimistic about reaching a mutually agreeable outcome."
A further meeting is scheduled for 21 March but an agreement seems highly unlikely. A Welsh government spokesman said: "The common contract is a matter for the trade unions and the colleges. In the event that talks have temporarily broken down, we would not intervene but would urge both sides to continue negotiations as a common contract could be beneficial to all."