Prospects of a fresh pay offer for college lecturers bring unions back to the negotiating table. Joseph Lee reports
Union leaders have abandoned plans for a two-day strike over pay just weeks after claiming they had "no option" but to stage a walk-out.
The lecturers' union, Natfhe, said it has suspended industrial action after a further meeting with the Association of Colleges last week.
No new pay offer was presented, but the union said it was given indications that colleges had the money to improve on the below-inflation proposal of 1.5 per cent, described by Natfhe as an "insult".
The strike had been scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday next week and would have coincided with a pensions strike by Unison - expected to shut colleges for almost the entire week. Unison's strike is also now on hold.
Barry Lovejoy, Natfhe's head of colleges, said: "We were offered 1.5 per cent and, originally, the indication was that wouldn't change.
"Now, they have consulted with their members and, from the information they've got, they should be in a position to make an improved offer.
"We have demonstrated our determination. That was clear with our rejection of the 1.5 per cent."
A Natfhe source said rank-and-file members would be angry at the climbdown, especially after the further education committee had voted two to one in favour of a strike.
At the time, Mr Lovejoy said: "We have no option but to send out a robust response that college staff will not be treated like this."
The source said that, by pulling its members back and forth between strike action and retreat, the union risked acting like the Grand Old Duke of York in the nursery rhyme.
The Association of Colleges earlier accused the union of "premature and disruptive action" in announcing the strike after just one meeting of the pay talks.
Sue Dutton, the association's deputy chief executive, declined to repeat the criticism. She said: "The AoC is pleased that we have reached sufficient common ground with Natfhe for the union to suspend further strike action."
Pay talks are due to resume on May 9. The employers' offer has also been rejected by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, the Association for College Management, the GMB, Unison and the TGWU.
No other union threatened strikes, but they have warned that, unless the AoC appears more willing to compromise, the national pay talks could break down altogether.
Natfhe has consistently claimed its members should be getting the same pay as teachers in schools, with the gap currently estimated at around 10 per cent.
The overall funding gap for 16-18 education between school sixth forms and colleges is estimated by the Learning and Skills Development Agency to be around 13 per cent.
Colleges - and lecturers themselves - have become increasingly worse off compared with their colleagues in schools since colleges became independent of local authority control in 1993. In many cases before that time, lecturers were able to to boast higher salaries than schoolteachers.
Natfhe has had varying levels of success in increasing its members' pay around the country. While some colleges have carried out previous year's unionAoC pay deals in full, others have not, leading to different pay rates around the country, in contrast to school-teachers' nationally agreed terms.
While the Government has stated its commitment to narrowing the funding gap, it has also demanded lecturers meet training standards closer to those expected of schoolteachers.
Lecturers are now expected to hold or be working towards a teaching qualification - a measure which Natfhe believes strengthens its case for equal pay.