The FE sector is bracing for further industrial unrest as unions prepare to take strike action over a national pay freeze for college staff, TES can reveal.
Last month TES reported that the Association of Colleges (AoC) would not be recommending a pay increase for 2015-16, despite sector unions calling for an extra pound;1 an hour for all staff. Colleges are being hit by reduced levels of funding for the coming academic year, with the adult skills budget cut by 24 per cent.
Now several unions in the sector - including Unison, GMB and the University and College Union (UCU) - have rejected the offer and are preparing to ballot on further action.
The AoC's decision came as a surprise to many in the sector since it had joined other bodies, including trade unions, in an unprecedented show of solidarity to oppose government cuts to the adult skills budget.
Last week UCU's FE committee rejected the AoC's recommendation and voted to hold a ballot on strike action.
Michael MacNeil, the union's national head of bargaining and negotiations, said: "At a time when the UCU has joined together with the other trade unions and sector organisations to cooperate on an unprecedented campaigning effort to protect and improve funding for further education, the decision by the AoC appears to be deliberately divisive and provocative."
Last year the union successfully balloted for industrial action over the 2014-15 pay offer from the AoC of 1 per cent, but was forced to call off a planned strike in October after the AoC gained a High Court injunction.
In a letter to Unison members, Jon Richards, the union's national secretary for education and children's services, describes the 2015-16 offer as a "watershed moment" and an "outright attack" on national bargaining.
"There was common awareness of the impact of adult funding cuts during the talks and also the variations in ability to uplift pay," he writes. "Unison was particularly concerned that the recommended pay freeze did not exempt the living wage bottom point, considering our joint work with the AoC on trying to achieve it sector-wide."
Unison's FE committee has rejected the offer, which Mr Richards describes as "in effect, no offer".
"After accepting consecutive years of below-inflation settlements, and with wages rising in the UK by 2.7 per cent, the committee hopes that college members will respond to the indicative ballot so that we can develop a strategy up to and including industrial action in response," he adds.
`Surprised and disappointed'
The GMB's FE committee has also rejected the offer and is consulting members on what action to take next.
Sharon Holder, the union's national officer for FE, told TES: "We were surprised and disappointed in the decision not to make an offer. We put in our claim in good faith and the response was ridiculous."
The ATL teaching union told TES that it would consult its members after the summer break. Norman Crowther, national official for post-16 education, said: "If the AoC wants a viable and high-status sector it needs to think again about making such derisory offers.
"At such difficult times we want collaboration, not competition over resources; we want partnership, not game-playing; and we want a sector moving forward with purpose, not one tearing itself apart."
In its final offer statement to the unions, the AoC says that colleges are facing "significant fiscal challenges" and warns that continued funding cuts will limit their ability to "effectively remunerate a skilled workforce". The association adds that this is the first time it has made such a recommendation and says it understands the "likely response".
"We would, however, call for our union colleagues to consider how we might better work together to represent our respective members collectively and position the sector to remunerate more effectively in the longer term," the AoC states. "There is a willingness from the employers' side to work together to protect the longer-term prospects of the sector, our skilled workforce and the learners we serve."
`Difficult climate' for sixth form deal
Teaching unions have also been negotiating with the Sixth Form Colleges' Association (SFCA) on pay.
The two sides have already agreed a new pay structure that will come into effect in 2016, which will restore pay comparability with schoolteachers and introduce appraisal-related progression.
At a meeting earlier this month, the unions asked the SFCA for an increase that was at least equal to what schoolteachers have been promised this year - ie, 1 per cent.
However, the SFCA has stressed that its colleges are operating in a "difficult financial climate".
Although pay talks have been adjourned until September, the two sides will continue to discuss the implementation of the new pay structure.