The battle between competing further education organisations came to a head this week when the Association for Colleges seized the initiative from its rival, the Colleges' Employers' Forum, in calling for a "wide and open debate" on the future of both groups.
The final straw for the AFC came when the CEF offered evidence to the Government's review on higher education, which the association considered to be overstepping its remit. A barrage of criticism of the CEF from college principals at last November's AFC conference revealed the increasingly fraught relationship of the two organisations, which have similar membership levels although the CEF does not operate in Scotland and has no sixth-form college members.
The AFC council was preparing to discuss strategy options drawn up by its chief executive Ruth Gee as The TES went to press.
Ms Gee said the possible steps were: to let market forces prevail, which would make the sector appear increasingly divided; to enlarge either the AFC or the CEF with one absorbing the role of the other; to establish a confederation of colleges as an umbrella body; or to merge the AFC and the CEF into a new organisation.
"It is imperative that the debate be a wide and open one," Ms Gee said. She suggested that a consultation paper should be circulated to all colleges and a joint AFC and CEF board meeting convened.
The two organisations have been in conflict since colleges became independent in 1993, although they were set up to complement each other: the AFC to oversee professional concerns and the CEF to take care of pay and conditions.
There has been a personality clash between the two chief executives, Ms Gee and the high-profile Roger Ward, plus an apparent blurring of demarcation lines by the CEF.
Principals have been increasingly concerned at the deepening rifts, arguing that the Government could divide and rule.
Ms Gee highlighted the changes since 1993 in a discussion paper for the AFC council this week. She asked if the FE sector had decided it wanted the CEF's brief extended, as it seemed from its intervention in the higher education debate. If so, the AFC should respond.
The Further Education Funding Council has also provided an impetus for change. Its chairman, Robert Gunn, said recently that "Gov-ernment prefers to have a clear and independent voice to which it can turn for views."
Some principals privately believe the organisations could work together if they were run by different people. Said one: "Many principals think that Roger Ward has exceeded his remit and do not want him to be the voice of FE."
Mr Ward has made no secret of the fact that he would like a merger on his terms and would be willing to drop "employers" from the title.
* Moderate members of NATFHE, the lecturers' union, have failed to overturn their executive's decision not to meet ACAS, the conciliation and arbitration service. The union will go ahead with industrial action, including strikes, next week in support of negotiations.
The CEF and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers began talks with ACAS last week. CEF chief executive, Roger Ward, called NATFHE's decision "somewhat extraordinary", saying it was unheard of in modern industrial relations history for a TUC affiliate to reject a call from ACAS. He said the strike called for next Wednesday "will have no impact on CEF negotiating policy".
The NATFHE FE sector conference last week resolved "to continue the twin-track strategy of pursuing local settlements with colleges but with an acceptable national agreement". Around 40 branches have voted to strike.