There is still "a serious reluctance" in some Scottish colleges to recognise lecturers' need for a professional salary and conditions of service, Ronnie Smith, Educational Institute of Scotland general secretary, has told further education principals in a New Year letter.
Last year, industrial action affected four colleges - Cardonald, Motherwell, Clydebank and Central College - and two more, Cambuslang and Dundee, are preparing for action.
Mr Smith acknowledges there have been several "acute areas of difference" between the union and college managers which have "boiled over to the point where there has been a breakdown in negotiations and in some situations this has led to industrial action".
Such disputes should now be consigned to the past for the good of the further education sector, Mr Smith maintains in his plea for a new partnership between the colleges and the union, which represents the bulk of FE lecturers in Scotland. The need for improved communication was never more urgent with further structural changes and the reforms to the vocational and academic curriculum resulting from the Higher Still development programme on the horizon.
However, he warns: "There is a serious risk that these opportunities will be lost unless there is a real will to overcome some of the pressing problems which confront the sector. There is still a serious reluctance in a number of colleges to recognise the entitlement of FE lecturers to a professional level of salary and to professional conditions of service."
Some colleges had refused to recognise the EIS as a negotiating body and "even the business of starting negotiation has been fraught with difficulty in some colleges," Mr Smith said. Incorporation of the colleges since 1993 had been "a not altogether happy experience".
In his letter to college principals, Mr Smith expresses optimism for the sector if some of the acute problems can be addressed.
He writes: "I have been greatly encouraged recently in the extent to which there is growing recognition in a number of colleges of the importance of constructive working relationships and of the benefits which accrue through agreed working patterns and the ability to discuss issues and problems within a positive environment. It is a practice which I hope will develop in all colleges"
Mr Smith also backs co-operation if the Higher Still programme, which gets under way in 1998, is to be implemented successfully. "We recognise too the many opportunities for schools and colleges to work together in delivering the new curriculum designed as it is to benefit all young people beyond the age of 16, whatever their aptitude, skills or educational performance up to that age.
"There are opportunities for FE colleges to work closely with local councils and I very much welcome some of the local initiatives taken on this, and on the willingness of management in some colleges to involve the EIS fully in this process. I would encourage further discussions on how such schemes can be developed in the future."
The EIS has promised to press for additional funding for Higher Still and for the whole of the further education sector in its political campaign ahead of the general election.