The Educational Institute of Scotland has revealed that it hopes to persuade groups of naturally related colleges to abandon plant bargaining in favour of collective agreements.
The TES Scotland has established that two-thirds of Scottish colleges have settled their pay claims for this year, a picture which belies the headline image of almost permanent crisis that has bedevilled FE since the colleges were incorporated.
But that means 17 colleges are still in negotiation or in dispute, and the EIS believes this is sapping and diverting the energies of staff and management at a time when many Government initiatives place FE at centre-stage.
Marian Healy, the union's national further and higher education officer, said: "At a time when FE should be blossoming, the blight seems to occur when both sides start negotiating on pay claims. If we could lift that burden from the shoulders of our branches and of college principals, then perhaps FE might be seen in a better light."
Ms Healy said that while the employers through the Association of Scottish Colleges remain officially opposed to any return to national bargaining she hoped that groups such as the Glasgow city colleges and the Association of Rural Colleges might be open to persuasion that collective negotiations are in their best interests.
Colleges that have settled to date have been forced into wide-ranging and ingenious efforts to reconcile staff demands with budget restrictions.
Average pay increases are running at 2.9 per cent. Telford in Edinburgh has secured the largest, a 5 per cent two-stage rise along with reductions to the length of the pay spine and recalculations in class contact but within the 860-hour annual maximum.
Kilmarnock has reached agreement on a straight 4.5 per cent, the final stage of a three-year deal which has also been struck at Clackmannan and James Watt.
Perhaps the most remarkable outcome has been at Glasgow's Langside College where lecturers voted two to one in favour of a pay freeze, albeit in return for five extra days' holiday for this session only. Alistair Tyre, the principal, praised the "mature" approach of staff who recognised this was a difficult financial year, following a Pounds 435, 000 cut in the college's Scottish Office grant.
Lecturers have also been given an assurance that they will share in what should be an improved grant next year, reflecting growth in student numbers last year of more than 17 per cent.
Elmwood in Cupar has agreed two days' extra holiday and similar discussions are taking place at Stevenson in Edinburgh in return for a zero rise. Bell in Hamilton has told staff not to expect a rise but there will be no redundancies.
Cardonald in Glasgow has negotiated improvements to core time, paternity and adoptive leave on top of a 2.25 per cent increase.
Others have simply agreed a flat rate increase: Pounds 690 at Anniesland,Pounds 350 at Cambuslang (plus Pounds 100 from this month if student growth targets are achieved) and Pounds 700 at Stow.
Combinations of flat-rated and percentage increases have been agreed at Central in Glasgow (2 per cent plus Pounds 150), Falkirk (a two-stage deal of 2 per cent from August 1997 and 2 per cent from February plus Pounds 200) and Thurso (2 per cent and Pounds 200).
Yet another variation emerges at John Wheatley in Glasgow. Staff will receive a Pounds 100 Christmas bonus, which will be consolidated into salaries plus a 2 per cent rise and a one-off payment of Pounds 200.
West Lothian lecturers have been given a 1.65 per cent increase but a second instalment of up to 1.85 per cent is being withheld pending a union-management investigation into "more efficient use of current staffing practices".
Glasgow College of Building and Printing is preparing to raise salaries for new lecturers by Pounds 4,000 to be sure recruitment will not suffer as ageing lecturers reach retirement. The college has offered a 4 per cent rise but 1 per cent of that is dependent on a favourable Scottish Office settlement next year. Details have still to be agreed with the unions, however.
Eleven colleges have reached straight percentage no-strings deals for this year. Management offers have been rejected at another six. The result of a ballot on a pay and conditions package at Fife College is expected this week.
The remaining colleges are still negotiating.