The failure of the Colleges' Employers' Forum to negotiate a settlement over lecturers' contracts is sparking a widespread exodus of members. A number of further education colleges are known to be reviewing their subscriptions - ranging from Pounds 3,500 to Pounds 8,000 a year - amid disillusionment about the services offered by the CEF.
An exodus will come as a blow to the CEF board's new chairman, Keith Scribbens, who wants to encourage all college corporations to join. Currently around 95 per cent of the 450 FE colleges are members.
National talks between the CEF and the lecturers' union NATFHE broke down in May during conciliation, leaving college corporations to secure local agreements.
Colin Flint, principal of Solihull College, which allowed its membership to lapse in 1994, said he had been examining alternative personnel and legal services from independent solicitors with a view to a joint arrangement with other colleges. "There is no single voice to represent colleges," he said.
Chris Hughes, principal of Gateshead College, said he would be recommending his corporation to review the annual subscription of Pounds 4,500. He said: "We need to consider whether CEF is good value for money now it has failed to secure a national settlement. We are not convinced of the effectiveness of many of its other services."
Robin Parkinson, principal of Great Yarmouth College, said: "I am certainly concerned at the lack of a resolution over the contracts issue. The CEF appears to make progress with non-teaching organisations but we have had to resolve our difficulties over the lecturers' conditions of services locally. There are issues here of style and the way things have been handled."
The deadline for renewal of membership is August 1. Colleges are charged subscription rates depending on their size.
Bury College has decided to withdraw. Vice-principal David Hudson said it would be spending its Pounds 6,000 subscription on alternative solicitors. "The CEF has been unable to deliver a national deal," he said. "It is now also recommending different pay scales to ones we have agreed locally. It now has little relevance to this college."
The principal of another college, who asked not to be named because the corporation has not yet discussed its future membership, said: "The CEF seems to have a reverse Midas touch. Anything it comes up with tends to be viewed by colleges with scepticism at best and outright hostility at worst. There is always a lot of rhetoric and circulars but never much movement. Some colleges may choose to stay in the CEF but they will do so as a comfort blanket rather than because of any confidence in the system."
He added that chief executive Roger Ward's "personal management style" had contributed to colleges' disenchantment.
Mr Scribbens was unavailable for comment. Mr Ward said he hoped those colleges planning to leave the CEF would reconsider.
He added: "I am particularly sorry to learn of the concerns regarding NATFHE's failure to sign the ACAS-brokered contract. We could get NATFHE to sign tomorrow but it would not be the contract that 95 per cent of our membership would want to live with. I predict, safely, that the vast majority of the sector will rejoin leaving CEF in its current position of being the largest voluntary body in further education."