The longest strike in further education since colleges left local authority control has been settled as union leaders square up for a new battle over pay for council-employed lecturers.
The seven-week dispute at Bolton College ended when managers and the lecturers' union NATFHE hammered out a pay and conditions deal in last-ditch talks.
Union members walked out on November 20, claiming managers were refusing to negotiate seriously over new employment contracts. The agreed terms represent a compromise between the old local authority Silver Book contracts held by the striking Bolton lecturers and the Colleges' Employers' Forum model proposed by managers.
Strikers returned to work in Bolton this week as NATFHE national leaders were consulting members over moves by local authorities to drop the Silver Book agreement for their own further education employees.
Now, thousands of lecturers in adult education centres and community colleges, still employed by local education authorities have been told the Silver Book conditions must go. Cash-strapped LEAs have launched a fundamental review of the national agreement and are calling for a "looser national framework", in line with collective agreements in other local government sectors.
Under the proposals, lecturers would see their hours increase from 30 to 37 hours a week, while their annual holiday entitlement would fall from 14 weeks to 35 days - close to the CEF model contract.
The employers' move reflects growing local authority funding shortages, and less flexibility since FE colleges were removed from LEA control in 1993. It represents a landmark in industrial relations in the sector - and a low point for NATFHE - since the architects of the Silver Book agreement are now being forced to abandon it.
If NATFHE members in LEAs - claimed to number 2,000 - oppose the shift to new conditions they could hold a ballot on industrial action.
The new year has also brought gloom-laden predictions over expected redundancies in FE colleges from the lecturers' union. National negotiating officer Sue Berryman said total job losses over the year were expected to equal the 1,500 redundancies in 1995.
She said: "It is a very bleak picture. Often we are losing people with highly specialist skills." The pattern of proposed job losses varies around the country, but in the worst-hit region - East Midlands - all but one of 35 colleges are proposing redundancies.
The issuing of protective notices to 113 staff - around a quarter of the teaching contingent - at West Kent College has prompted NATFHE to write this week to Education and Employment Secretary Gillian Shephard seeking an urgent inquiry into the college's financial affairs.
West Kent principal, Major General Graham Hollands, accused NATFHE head office of exaggerating the problem and insisted that no more than 57 posts would go.