The leaders of the country's further education and sixth form colleges are being balloted in an election which could have a crucial bearing on the outcome of the prolonged dispute over new lecturers' contracts.
Principals of colleges throughout England and Wales and the chairs of their governing corporations are being asked to vote on the composition of their national negotiating body, the Colleges' Employers' Forum.
A third of the 12-member board is up for re-election this year, with two seats available for principals and two for corporate chairs.
The revised board will include a new chair to replace Gordon Scott, chairman of Peterlee College corporation, who is retiring. The other corporation chairman standing down is Gerry Plowright, from Norfolk College of Art and Technology, who is seeking re-election.
The two principals' seats up for grabs are those of Michael Clegg, from Preston College, who is seeking re-election, and Michael Field, from Croydon College, who is retiring.
But it is the chairmanship which will be closely watched by the further education sector and which may have a bearing on the future of the dispute with the lecturers' union NATFHE.
One of those likely to be nominated for the post is Keith Scribbens, a former NATFHE official, who is due for re-election to the CEF board next year.
Mr Scribbens said it was important for the board to reflect a balance of views and not be dominated by one set of opinions. His primary concern as chairman would be to end the dispute with unions over new contracts.
Mr Scribbens, a consultant and trainer in college management and chairman of the corporation at South Bristol College, was an author of the disputed Silver Book agreement on conditions of employment.
He said: "In spite of our present difficulties - and I acknowledge these come from NATFHE's side as well as our own - we must try to get the union in the fold of proper negotiations and get away from the conflict of the past couple of years. The priority is to achieve for lecturers what we have achieved for support staff and management."
If elected as chairman, he would also focus on improving the range of services offered by CEF and seek a closer relationship with the Association for Colleges, resulting ultimately in a merger.
Colin Daniels, corporation chairman at Warrington Collegiate Institute and another strong candidate for the chairmanship of the board, declined to discuss the election. A senior executive with Trafalgar House, he was the Conservative candidate for Warrington in the 1992 general election.
Another candidate for the chairmanship is Cleve McCurdy, chairman of the corporation at the City College, in Manchester, who is seeking election to one of the vacant posts on the board.
He said one of his main objectives would be to redress the imbalance of ethnic minorities on the CEF board. But, he said: "The dispute over contracts is by far the most important issue. It is vital to get people working harmoniously again."
Roger Ward, chief executive of the CEF, said: "The most important qualities anyone can bring to the CEFboard in an understanding of the realpolitik of the further education sector and lots of energy."