The merger of 16 Ulster colleges into just six has sparked an equal opportunities row as civil servants say that only existing principals can apply to run the new institutions.
Lecturers' union Natfhe has protested to the province's Equality Commission - but the quango says its hands are tied unless it gets a complaint from an applicant.
The instruction, which essentially guarantees the jobs will go to six of the principals of the current 16 colleges, came from Daryl Young from the Department of Education and Learning.
He is acting as DEL's project manager overseeing the mergers. His letter says the leader of each new college should be chosen from applicants from one of the colleges it is replacing. This means most of the vacancies will have male-only shortlists.
If this process is not complied with, the DEL says it will use legal powers to enforce its wishes.
A letter to colleges from Mr Young said: "The department is instructing colleges to appoint principalsdirectors through the internal process. If necessary, the department will issue a formal direction to colleges under Article 158 of the Education Reform (Northern Ireland) Order."
Jim McKeown, Natfhe's regional official in Northern Ireland, said: "This is a disgraceful decision which will result in 'jobs for the boys'. These are new jobs at a senior level attracting salaries at around pound;100,000 a year. Filling the posts in this way does not promote equality.
"In two cases there is likely to be no contest at all, and in every case it is almost certain a male principal will be appointed. How does this square with the Government's equality agenda?"
DEL's approach is in contrast to the position taken by the Department for Education and Skills, in England, which has raised the possibility that people outside education could be considered as principals.
Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 insists that public authorities promote equal opportunities between the sexes as well as across the sectarian divide.
Natfhe says the DEL - as a public body - is failing to comply with at least the spirit of the legislation.
Just two of the 16 current principals are female. The Equality Commission's code of conduct says vacancies should be advertised widely, but that this principle has to be balanced against the need to avoid redundancies.
It advised Natfhe about the legal aspects, but says it would be for a tribunal - brought by a potential candidate for one of the jobs - to decide whether the DEL was in breach of the rules.
The mergers were decided after a review of FE in Ulster which found evidence of excessive administrative costs while some of the principals'
jobs appear to have been protected by the DEL's intervention. Natfhe fears that there will be many staff casualties.
Having decided to follow the merger process, rather than replacing existing colleges outright, the DEL says recruitment must be restricted.
A DEL spokesman told FE Focus: "The college mergers are subject to the requirements of the Further Education (Northern Ireland) Order 1997 and the department's legal advice is that, under the Order, principals of new colleges have to be appointed from the group of existing principals in the colleges that are merging."
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