An emergency meeting of the national executive of Britain's largest lecturers' union will decide today whether to join negotiations through the Arbitration, Conciliation and Advisory Service following the collapse of talks on new contracts for the fourth time in two years.
With bargaining over the 1995-96 pay claim likely to muddy the waters later this month - some lecturers have had no pay rise since 1993 - there appeared little hope of conciliation on contracts as The TES went to press.
The teachers' 2.7 per cent pay rise has set the marker for lecturers who start negotiations in two weeks for their rise in August. The National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education is likely to include at least a 6 per cent retrospective increase in its claim.
But the employers have already refused, for the second year running, to pay the increase to lecturers who fail to sign "flexible contracts" which increase working hours and cut holidays.
Ministers have also stepped up the pressure on colleges to abandon conditions of service which held sway when colleges were under local education authority control. Up to Pounds 50 million will be withheld from budgets where managers fail to commit all staff to new contracts.
Talks between unions and the Colleges' Employers' Forum broke down last week. A last-ditch effort to salvage negotiations came when the smaller union, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, called for conciliation through ACAS.
Natfhe has called for strikes in around 150 colleges to go ahead next month, even if the national executive agrees to go to ACAS.
The biggest stumbling block remains that of teaching hours. The employers want no mention of a maximum written into the contract. NATFHE wants a fixed figure negotiated in line with the Silver Book.
An employer compromise, phasing out the reference to hours over three years, was rejected by the unions. The employers also insisted that changes would not apply to lecturers who had already signed CEF contracts.
Roger Ward, CEF chief executive, said: "We will go to ACAS without NATFHE if necessary. I think they would be insane not to join talks. If they think their deal is so good then why won't they put it to the test?" But Sue Berryman, NATFHE negotiating officer, said: "We had no mandate to accept last week. A decision whether or not to go (to ACAS) will be reached at the special meeting of the national executive committee."
The only time ACAS has been called in during the two-year dispute was when they were asked to settle a local dispute between management and NATFHE at the City of Bath College - riven with strikes and sacking threats.
That resulted in a new contract which NATFHE claimed was a victory: a maximum 810 hours annually and 26 weekly.
Leaders of NATFHE are aware that talks through ACAS now may be the best chance they have of seeing such an agreement nationally. But they are under tremendous pressure from union hardliners to fight on.