After more than two years of debate, tense negotiations to agree a landmark pay and conditions deal for FE teachers in Wales finally appear to be approaching a conclusion.
The talks are entering a crucial phase, but sources close to the process say they are hopeful that a conclusion will be reached by the end of next month, securing a common pay deal for college staff across the country.
It has been a long road. First minister Carwyn Jones first set out plans for a common contract during his campaign to become leader of the Welsh Labour Party in 2009, which were reaffirmed in the Labour Party manifesto in the 2011 Assembly election.
The Welsh government says a common contract would create a fairer system, with people doing the same job being paid in the same way, and would make it easier for people to move between colleges.
But it would also cement the divide between FE teachers in Wales and England. In England, the majority of staff have worked to locally negotiated contracts for almost 20 years, leading to wide variation in pay and terms and conditions across the sector. In Wales, lecturers have had parity of pay with teachers since 2006, meaning they are generally higher paid than their counterparts across the border.
Although many clauses of the new contract have been agreed over the past two years, several sticking points remain, on which there are "significant differences of opinion", according to sources. These include holiday entitlement for all staff, and annual and weekly teaching hours for lecturers.
Another issue is that ColegauCymru, the body that represents Wales' FE colleges, is insisting on the contract being cost neutral, which some unions say is proving to be an "impossible position" on which to negotiate. But with no money coming from the government to implement the contract, it is hard to see how the position can change.
John Graystone, chief executive of ColegauCymru, said that implementing what the trade unions wanted would be costly. "We don't want to lose staff because of this," he said. "It is clear there will have to be further give and take on both sides."
Mr Graystone admitted the discussions had been "robust" at times, but one college principal, who did not want to be named, said the negotiations had been "very fraught" and accused the teaching unions of being "archaic" in their approach.
"We need to teach differently to meet the challenges of the 21st century," he said. "We need more flexibility, different mechanics and different approaches. But some of these unions are living in the past and don't have the best interests of their members at heart in this respect."
The principal said he hoped a common contract could be agreed by the end of October, but he was "sceptical". "If we don't get an agreement soon, I can see colleges moving away from employing lecturers to other professionals on different contracts, and that's going to cause all sorts of difficulties," he said.
Rebecca Williams, policy officer at Welsh teaching union UCAC, chairs the joint trade union side of the negotiations. This includes bodies representing lecturers, such as the University and College Union, UCAC, the NASUWT and the ATL, and those representing other FE staff, including Unison, Unite, GMB and the Association of Managers in Education.
"We have an intense series of crucial meetings coming up over the next month and the aim is to get the whole lot agreed by the end of October," Ms Williams said. "Everybody is keen to get it resolved now."
Although the Welsh government has not interfered in the negotiations, it has kept a close eye on proceedings and is keen to see a resolution.
"We are looking for an agreement by the end of the financial year, in order for a common contract to be implemented by August next year," a spokeswoman said. "We do not plan on imposing a deadline as this is a matter for resolution between the employers and the trade unions."
Peaks and troughs
Welsh government figures released this summer show that 8,810 full-time equivalent staff were directly employed by FE institutions in Wales in 2010-11, a 3 per cent rise on the previous year. This reverses a downward trend since a peak in numbers in 2005-06.
In teaching and learning departments, 5,300 staff were employed, the highest number for three years. A further 980 were employed in teaching and learning support services.