Dozens of English colleges have been identified by trade unions as spending tens of millions of pounds on consultants and agency workers while refusing to improve the salaries of their lowest-paid employees and while many cut jobs.
In total, the colleges spent just under Pounds 40 million - almost Pounds 18m on consultants and just over Pounds 22m on agency staff - according to figures that were published today by the University and College Union and Unison.
The four highest-spending colleges - Lewisham in south-east London; City College Birmingham; Guildford in Surrey; and North Devon - together accounted for more than a quarter of the total, with a combined spend of more than Pounds 11m on consultants and agency workers.
The unions targeted for investigation 79 colleges that had refused to honour a pay agreement for staff earning less than Pounds 17,000 a year. The deal would have given the lowest paid an extra Pounds 550 each this year.
The figures will also fuel protests over job cuts at colleges, the unions said.
Barry Lovejoy, the UCU's head of further education, said: "It's small wonder that staff are so sceptical when college principals talk about the need for making cuts and tightening belts.
"Staff are the lifeblood of institutions and it is a disgrace that managements are putting their jobs on the line by spending tens of millions on consultants and agencies. Successful colleges are built from the bottom up, not from the top down.
"Further education can play a key role in re-skilling the UK population and retraining people during the recession. It cannot afford this draining of resources."
Unison, which represents many of the lowest-paid further education staff, including cleaners, who earn an average of Pounds 5.82 an hour, called the figures shocking.
Chris Fabby, the union's national officer for FE, said: "Many FE colleges say they cannot afford to give their low-paid staff a minimum salary increase of Pounds 550 this year. But they could save millions if they recruited full-time, permanent staff instead of using agency workers.
"Recruitment agency owners and consultants must be laughing all the way to the bank."
Growing numbers of colleges are planning redundancies as they prepare for anticipated budget cuts next year and manage funding shortfalls this year in various areas of provision, including the Train to Gain scheme.
The UCU is stepping up industrial action in protest at job losses. Among the latest actions was a picnic protest held yesterday at the Nuneaton campus of North Warwickshire and Hinckley College against 40 planned redundancies.