Lecturers at 92 colleges around the country are voting this week on strike action in protest over pay levels they claim are "derisory".
However, the number represents less than a third of colleges invited to join a nationally co-ordinated protest by NATFHE, the lecturers' union. It asked individual college branches to ballot union members over a one-day strike on November 28.
The call for industrial action comes shortly after a NATFHE survey revealed more than half of colleges had opted to ignore a recommended 2.4 per cent pay rise put forward by the Association of Colleges.
The wide variety of settlements imposed by colleges, ranging from a pay freeze to increases above the recommended figure, proved colleges were "going it alone" on salaries.
Despite acknowledging the collapse of national pay scales for FE lecturers, NATFHE insisted it would stick with its policy of negotiating nationally on pay.
However, the reluctance of over 250 college NATFHE branches to join in a nationally-coordinated day of action shows how the union is struggling to maintain a unified national position on pay now that colleges are acting individually.
Union sources have acknowledged national pay negotiations could now become little more than a process of securing a minimum pay safety net for staff. NATFHE cancelled a national day of action planned for October 15 to allow more time to consider its response after its survey revealed the extent of variation in pay deals.
Sue Berryman, NATFHE FE negotiating secretary, said lecturers were tired of hearing their skills were worth "bargain basement rates" and refused to make more sacrifices. Their pay had fallen steadily in comparison with teachers' salaries.
She added: "Lecturers know that colleges have been hit hard by budget cuts. We sympathise and are working to convince the government that the system needs more cash".
A union spokeswoman said: "What we are seeing is colleges doing their own thing on pay and our branches responding accordingly."
There was no clear correlation between those colleges opting to ballot and the worst pay deals, she said.
In a substantial number of colleges, lecturers will still be unaware of their final pay rise for 1996-97. The NATFHE pay survey revealed how some colleges have opted for the first time this year to make pay increases conditional on performance factors including student recruitment. That can be gauged only after November 1 - the date of this year's first census of student numbers by the Further Education Funding Council.