Paul Mackney, NATFHE general secretary, is hoping that this year - for the first time in five years - it will be possible to negotiate a national framework with contractual safeguards which allows colleges local flexibility.
He said: "I am personally very keen that we get back into the habit of consulting and that the management get back into the habit of listening and taking account of our views. The sector has been impoverished by the fact that the views of the practioners have more or less been stifled.
"I think the tide has turned. I think there is a growing recognition that disagreement does not always mean disloyalty and that it is often a friend that brings you the bad news. Even if you do not wish to hear it, you probably need to hear what they have to say."
He added that some hourly paid, fixed-term contracts for lecturing staff became increasingly unlawful after a key ruling in the House of Lords in March 1994 that prohibited discrimination against part-timers if it had a gender effect. (The European Union part time working directive will also give part-time employees pro rata rights when it is implemented in the UK.) However, Mr Mackney adds, that the union has to recognise that the employers have a problem. In Leicestershire, for example, where some 1,500 hourly paid adult education lecturers were employed by the local authorities, the cost of granting comparable employment rights to full-time lecturers would have made a massive hole in the LEA's budget.
So Mr Mackney struck a deal with the LEA to introduce an established part-time contract which guarantees the lecturer a set proportion of teaching hours but allows the employer to vary some other hours. This contract includes provision for sick pay, maternity leave and redundancy pay.
Subsequently there have been a number of other agreements in adult education in the West Midlands and now further education colleges are looking at this contract, albeit negotiated in a different educational sector, as one possible basis for a local alternative to signing up with any agency offering very few employment rights.
The agreements signed locally between NATFHE and the colleges could also point the way forward to the possible shape of a national framework agreement.
Mr Mackney says he could also see a role for agencies supplying short-term cover. He adds: "You could see an agency which maybe has currently signed up 150 employers seeing the value in signing up more than 400 employers to a more limited form of agency contract."
Jim Scrimshaw, chairman of the AOC since January, said: "I believe that we need all parties in FE - all colleges and everyone involved in FE to be working together, if we are going to make the kind of impact that we have to do under the current Government."
There is always going to be a role for a degree of flexibility within the workforce, he added, but the question is how much. "My personal view is that if you go to the extreme and say we will replace all lecturers on full-time contracts, then that would be very unhealthy," he says. The agency role was essentially one at the fringes.
"I think there are considerable grounds for being more optimistic now than at any other time in the past five years since incorporation."
Keith Scribbins was one of the architects of the Silver Book and is a former chairman of the CEF. He was in favour of reforming conditions of service but not of tearing up the Silver Book without negotiating something else to replace it.
"I think we are going to see a resurgence of bargaining arrangements because of the inefficiencies of doing it in other ways."
However, he believes the jury is still out on the question of whether further education is poised to enter a new positive age of harmonious industrial relations.
A demotivated workforce will not be ready or keen to implement change.
Only if the colleges vote for some degree of centralised negotiating can the machinery to negotiate be put in place.
The teaching service needs to be professionalised and the proposed establishment of a Teaching Council would help to do that.
Finally Mr Scibbins believes that to raise lecturer's salaries and put right their conditions of service will cost money - money that the colleges do not have.
So the ultimate question appears to be: will this Government be willing cough up the extra resources needed to help put industrial relations in FE back on a harmonious footing?