Employers have been warned they face a "rough, tough battle" as lecturers are balloted for strike action which could hit one third of colleges.
The ballot, carried out today by lecturers' union Natfhe, is being held in 80 English colleges to vote on what the union describes as an "escalating programme of strike action" in the latest stage in the bid for pay parity with schoolteachers.
Natfhe is attempting to force colleges to implement the latest pay deal for lecturers which, it says, would significantly narrow the pay gap with schools.
If there is a "yes" vote, there would be a one-day walk-out involving most lecturers on February 24, with a further strike on March 1. Two further days of action are likely in March, the union warns, unless there is progress.
Natfhe wants colleges to implement the pay deal which was agreed in negotiations with the Association of Colleges. It involved a straight 3 per cent increase and a new pay structure - the combined effect of which would be worth around 8 per cent for the average lecturer, the union says.
As further unrest looms, an AoC spokesperson insisted nearly 90 per cent of colleges "have implemented, or intend to implement, a pay award of at least 3 per cent from August 2004".
Sue Dutton, the AoC's deputy chief executive, said: "We are delighted that so much progress has been made on pay and we expect that by this time even more colleges will have reached an agreement with their staff."
She said the problems were caused by lack of overall funding for further education and described the union's decision to ballot for action as "disappointing".
Natfhe argues that the 3 per cent - even if it was awarded - represents less than half the pay increase lecturers would get if the deal was honoured in full.
The AoC has not published figures for the number of colleges that have implemented either the 3 per cent, or the deal in its entirety - preferring to state the proportion who have done so or intend to.
Barry Lovejoy, head of colleges for Natfhe, said: "We would question those figures but, even if they are accurate, very few colleges have introduced the most important part of the deal - the new pay structures.
"We have done what we can over the past three or four years to seek agreements with colleges, and yet, some six months after it should have been in place, we find that a majority of colleges are still not implementing the deal.
"This month's strike is just the first round. Other colleges are likely to join in further action over the next few months. It may be a rough, tough battle but lecturers' patience has run out."
The Government made a commitment in 2001 to tackle the pay gap between colleges and schools, but principals claim they cannot do more without more money from the Learning and Skills Council.