Lecturers have refused to strike over a pay deal that will widen the gap between their earnings and schoolteachers' because of concerns over college funding.
A University and College Union (UCU) ballot over strike action, which closed on Monday, ended with victory for the "no" vote by a margin of just 132, out of more than 7,000 who cast ballots.
The vote means the union's executive is likely to have few other options than to accept the 1.5 per cent pay recommendation, which it originally called "derisory" in urging members to vote for industrial action.
A spokeswoman for the Association of Colleges (AoC) said: "The AoC welcomes the news that UCU members have voted against taking strike action relating to the 200910 pay recommendation. We are pleased to see that UCU members have appreciated the realities of the economic climate facing colleges."
Colleges expect 201011 to be the toughest year for funding since the mid- 1990s, with a 3 per cent cut in adult funding rates and a freeze on 16-18 funding.
Barry Lovejoy, head of further education at the union, agreed that the economy and the funding announcements for FE were likely to have had an impact on some members in raising fears over job security.
"We have had full consultation with our members about the offer and the result was not to proceed with industrial action," he said. "But the feedback we have is that members continue to be disappointed with the offer, particularly as it's a step backwards in terms of going towards parity with schoolteachers."
Union representatives at a special sector conference in September made the decision to reject the pay offer and ballot for a programme of national strike action, beginning at the end of this month and escalating with further two- and three-day strikes in subsequent weeks.
It was intended to form part of a campaign also involving HE staff that would involve a lobby of Parliament for more funding and the launch of manifestos for further, adult and higher education.
"The offer was seen as derisory, falling short of the 2.3 per cent awarded to schoolteachers and a step backwards on achieving parity," the union said before the ballot.
UCU has also highlighted the large pay rises awarded to principals, with college leaders enjoying an average 6.5 per cent salary increase from 2007 to 2008, while staff were restricted to 3.2 per cent.
But Mr Lovejoy denied there was any rift between activists' views and the mass of UCU members.
"Since we took that position on the increase, we've had more news about the funding situation for the sector," he said. "The vote was close."
The six unions in FE - UCU, Unison, the Association for College Management, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, the GMB and Unite - put in a joint claim in April last year for a 6 per cent increase or a minimum salary rise of pound;2,000 for the lowest paid.
Pitched as a "catch-up" claim for underpaid staff, it would have covered over 250,000 workers in English colleges ranging from lecturers to cleaners.