The recent strikes at further education colleges over pay have been vexing many: the colleges, the unions, the students and the wider training and education sector. All seem to be in broad agreement that the strikes are unnecessary - although exactly why depends on which side you are on.
However, the action has raised fundamental questions about FE national pay agreements. In short, some are asking whether deals, such as the 2004 agreement that lies at the heart of the current dispute, are worth the paper they are written on.
The jury is out: but the failure of about 90 colleges to implement the 2004 deal by last December is symptomatic of a national pay bargaining system in difficulty.
The current dispute suggests that, if not exactly worthless, national FE pay deals are valued more by unions than employers. The irony is that they were designed to prevent the type of industrial action seen in February and March.
A key difficulty is that they are entirely voluntary as far as colleges are concerned: employers are free to implement or ignore the recommendations as they see fit.
This is a world away from schools, where minimum-pay recommendations are immutable. It is also a more fluid situation than exists in the university sector, where agreements struck between trades unions and the Universities and Colleges Employers Association tend to stick, except when universities deviate to pay staff more than the agreed levels.
For many FE employers, national deals offer little more than a benchmark, a useful figure to know as they knuckle down to deciding at local level what to pay staff.
This sits badly with the University and College Union, which sees national deals as recommendations that, at the very least, employers are obliged to honour. To the union, the failure of colleges to implement agreements breaches the spirit, if not the actual terms, of an employer-employee pact.
Given that employers continue to turn up to the bargaining table and sign national agreements, it is perhaps not surprising that the union holds to the position that they are more binding than a benchmark.
Barry Lovejoy, the UCU's head of further education, is a man at the end of his tether with organisations that he clearly feels have deliberately ignored the 2004 agreement, which the union estimates would raise middle- ranking lecturers' salaries by pound;4,500 a year. He said the members have had enough of waiting around for what are tantamount to IOUs from some colleges.
"We've been forced to put the pressure on," he said. "We are prepared to sit down and have it phased in. The idea of completely ignoring it is not in colleges' interest.
"We've offered right from the start to talk, but we've not been engaged."
The union thinks many colleges are playing fast and loose by choosing to make local deals that bear little resemblance to what has been agreed at a national level.
"It's absolutely correct to say it's not mandatory," Mr Lovejoy said. "But it's more than a benchmark. It's a clear recommendation from both sides.
"Local deals are short-termism. They won't attract the same sort of staff and the deals will inevitably lead to disruption further down the line."
Mr Lovejoy is facing an uphill battle to shake off the benchmark tag. It will be difficult to shift because so many principals believe the deals are exactly that.
Graham Moore, principal of Stoke-on-Trent College and chair of the 157 Group, the organisation of leading colleges, sums up the view of many.
"The advice has only ever been advice," he said. "It does give the basis for unions and employers to talk to each other and agree a recommendation but it's not helpful for unions to threaten to strike."
Colleges argue that it is up to principals and their finance directors to work out how much they can afford to pay staff, depending on local circumstances and other variables.
Norman Cave, principal of Bournville College in Birmingham, said: "These are national recommendations but a college has to judge where it's at."
Doug Boynton, his counterpart at Telford College, said: "We take notice of the recommendation, which I always find very useful because it gives us a benchmark. If the money isn't in the kitty, then we can't give it. But I would add that the majority of colleges want to pay the best to attract the best people."
Both Telford and Bournville colleges have implemented the 2004 recommendations.
Mr Cave said: "We've paid because we have felt in a position to be able to do so. We wanted staff to receive the benefits for their hard work. But not every college is in that position.
"If colleges are not in a position to pay, the union should be working with management to see what arrangements should be put in place."
Mr Boynton said: "Where the union is coming from is that they want the best possible deal for their members, but they have to bear in mind the ability of employers to pay."
It is notable that, while both FE and sixth form colleges have to find the money for pay awards, sixth form employers embrace national agreements.
Eddie Playfair, principal of Newham Sixth Form College in east London, said: "I value the national negotiating structure because it gives structure and a framework for your own college's pay and conditions. For sixth form colleges, it works very well. I value it and others do."
While FE national pay recommendations underpin arrangements in sixth form colleges, Mr Playfair points out that their negotiations are carried out with schoolteacher unions. One inference might be that the teachers' unions carry more clout than the UCU. Certainly, a report from that union last year showed that about 35 per cent of nearly 140,000 eligible lecturers were in the union, while in education generally the union membership rate is more than 50 per cent.
Referring to FE colleges, Mr Moore agreed: "Active union membership is not that high. Increasingly, a much greater proportion of staff in FE colleges are from the private sector. They are not career teachers, so they've experienced a rather different, more commercial environment."
Sue Whitham, head of secretariat at the Sixth Form Colleges' Forum, said: "The difference is that the sixth form colleges have a totally different attitude to the pay of their staff.
"We have got to compete with schools, and, if we recruit, we have to pay them around the same wage. They're not going to come for less.
"It's a case of priorities, and maybe it's more of a priority to pay whatever the pay costs are. Getting the pay right is seen as very important."
Whether it is because sixth form colleges are willing to pay their staff more given the nature of the jobs market in which they compete, as Ms Whitham believes, or because of the neatness that national agreements lend to institutions' pay and conditions, as Mr Playfair says, the result is that sixth form colleges have avoided strikes.
Now FE colleges face a pay claim of 6 per cent for the 2009-10 academic year. Negotiations are due to start on May 12, when employers will give their response. If it is too expensive for many colleges, this will compound staff anger and frustration caused by institutions' failure to honour the 2004 deal.
And, given the current financial constraints, it is unlikely that all colleges will be able to afford the pay claim. Last week's Budget will have helped colleges somewhat with money to address a shortfall in 16-19 provision and the promise of more for capital projects. But, as Mr Boynton said: "The bottom line is that nobody knows in FE what our funding allocation will be next year."
The changing nature of colleges as they become more businesslike, earning more income from commercial training contracts, for example, raises deeper questions about the future for pay in further education.
Mr Cave thinks that what the UCU would define as a national deal will be far removed from pay settlements in the future.
"I do think we're coming to a point of (change in) how we account for our pay awards," he said. "Pay awards could be couched in (terms of) what we get in return. We might have to meet payment targets in a way colleges have never done before."
In the meantime, he is in favour of getting pay deals struck at the beginning of the calendar year, rather than the financial year, because it gives colleges a lead-in time to establish what their payroll costs will be.
Evan Williams, the director of employment and professional services at the Association of Colleges, says that for now the majority will continue to follow the national recommendations. But for how long colleges follow these recommendations remains to be seen.