THE first comprehensive survey for seven years on pay in further education got under way this week as questionnaires were rushed out to colleges in an 11th-hour effort to prepare a case for improved salaries for lecturers.
The survey - which also asks colleges for information on their recruitment and retention of staff - is the first attempt to gauge the pay of lecturers since incorporation. But colleges will have to respond promptly to the 16-page survey to meet the Christmas deadline set by ministers, who want to have a model ready for implementation by next April.
Meanwhile, a five-person "FE pay" team has been set up in the Department for Education and Employment and told to assess current pay levels of staff in the sector.
When lifelong learning minister Malcolm Wicks announced an extra pound;50 million for FE staff last November he said it should not be "funnelled into general pay rises", and that the Government expected "something for something".
Although the exact nature of this trade-off is still unclear, ministers have agreed that the performance-related model introduced for schools is not applicable to the post-16 sector. Insiders say that PRP is "never mentioned" in meetings with the department.
Negotiations between the Government and the national joint forum - led by lecturers' union NATFHE and the Association of Colleges - have centred around eligibility.
Employees' representatives have been arguing for team-based rewards rather than individual rises, while department officials insist that only colleges with a system of staff performance appraisal should qualify.
The department's original plans to intoduce the initiative only in sixth-form colleges were scrapped after it was realised that this could exacerbate the pay gap between them and general FE colleges, and upset the recruitment of teachers.
Sue Berryman, head of the colleges department at NATFHE, said the lack of reliable data on lecturers' pay scales was harming their case for earmarked money for rises.
"I lay the blame at the door of the old Colleges Employers Forum - they never collected any figures on staff pay. But sixth-form college employers have done and that has put them in a much stronger position," she said.
"It is really important that colleges fill these questionnaires in because then the department will be more convinced of the justice of our case."
Meanwhile Unison, which represents most support staff in colleges, has been admitted to the national joint forum after lobbying ministers for a place at the table. It is arguing that many of its members perform teaching functions and should be included in the pay formula.
Christina McAnea, of Unison's FE department, said: "The teaching process in FE is quite different from that in schools. In FE so much of the work that is done is practical and often involves the help of learning support staff.
But part-time lecturers employed through agencies look like missing out on any share of the pound;50m after government officials confirmed that any agreed pay formula would apply only to those on a contract.
A spokesperson for the Association of College Management said: "We are talking to government about the need to address pay for college employees. This research will add muscle to our case."