Lecturers are to get Pounds 50 a day strike pay indefinitely in a dispute at Southwark College which their union says is a "test case for the national struggle against attacks on jobs".
The decision to raise the rate from Pounds 30 was backed overwhelmingly by conference delegates, despite warnings from the executive that the Pounds 25,000 weekly drain on scarce resources would undermine efforts to back other disputes.
Southwark College, where lecturers have been on strike for more than five weeks, became a cause cel bre at the conference. Staff are resisting compulsory redundancies, redeployment of senior lecturers with a new imposed contract grade of "programme manager" and the imposition of the agency Education Lecturing Services (ELS) for part-timers.
Hundreds of students risk failing their exams and losing their university places because vital revision classes have not taken place and coursework marks have not been submitted to examination boards, Steven Rose, the branch chair, said. Students want compensation for the lessons they have missed, and recruitment for the autumn has not yet started.
Pressure on the college has also increased as support staff in UNISON voted last week to strike against Pounds 1.5 million cuts in a single year from a Pounds 10m staffing budget.
However, Mr Rose was "optimistic" that an ACAS-brokered deal - which was being considered as The TES went to press - might resolve the dispute.
"We have asked for a moratorium on the use of ELS and a return-to-work agreement with a phased deduction of the pay we have already lost. For some, this is more than Pounds 2,500," he said.
Under the deal, staff could earn some money back by giving students extra work to catch up and by doing extra work in the summer to help student recruitment.
But conference delegates said a settlement could not be counted on. They announced record collections from colleges in support. In one, 50 staff had given Pounds 120 each - and pressed for increased strike pay.
Jim Cork, for the national executive, opposed the increase, urging delegates to think carefully and not get carried away on a tide of euphoria. "What will happen in other areas if we expend the totality of our funds in one area?" he said.
But, for the overwhelming majority of delegates, the range of industrial relations issues, from the imposition of new contracts to the introduction of agency working, with diminished employment rights, epitomised what they saw as their struggle nationally.