Union impatience plus employers' lack of cash risk serious industrial unrest. Ian Nash and Steve Hook report
Colleges face the biggest outbreak of strikes in the modern further education sector as funding problems cast a cloud over the latest pay talks.
Paul Mackney, general secretary of the lecturers' union Natfhe, has predicted a national strike as the goal of pay parity with school teachers looks further away.
Already, many colleges have coped with limited strikes over their failure to implement the current pay deal - a 3 per cent rise and a new salary structure.
Now, the union fears the 20056 pay talks will be blighted by funding problems which have already led to colleges cutting an estimated 200,000 adult places.
The expectation of widespread cuts was revealed in an FE Focus survey last week.
While college funding has consistently increased since 2001, the extra activity expected of further education has put the squeeze on those which fall outside Government priorities - including pay.
As Natfhe prepares for its annual conference in Eastbourne this weekend, even the big issue of its imminent merger with the AUT, the university lecturers' union, looks likely to be overshadowed by the prospect of an all-out strike next year.
Mr Mackney told FE Focus: "Union members and college employers have lost patience with this Government.
"I am not just talking one or two days but an all-out continuous strike for a national pay scale. We were promised the gap with school teachers in England would be closed by 2004 and this has not happened."
He says he will not hold the colleges entirely responsible for what is expected to be a poor pay offer after negotiations resume in July and said the Department for Education and Skills should intervene to make sure any agreement is fully-implemented.
While this would not in itself close the pay gap between colleges and schools, it would prevent industrial action over non-implementation of deals once they have been struck.
National negotiations are not binding on colleges because, since they left local authority control in 1993, they have had autonomy over pay decisions.
Yet in Wales, where colleges enjoy a similar independent status, the Welsh Assembly has protected lecturers' pay.
Mr Mackney says Natfhe has common ground with the employers in terms of their shared grievance over government funding, through the Learning and Skills Council, which they insist is not enough.
He said: "This is the worst position between us and the Government in 20 years. We know that many of the employers would welcome strike action because the Government simply has not come up with the cash.
"In terms of ministers, Jane Davidson (the Welsh education secretary) is one of the best to deal with. She found the money and simply told the employers 'if you don't pay the rise you don't get the money'. I expect ministers in England to do at least that."
Sue Dutton, deputy chief executive of the Association of Colleges, conceded this week that there is "a big hole in the LSC budget", but accused Natfhe of jumping the gun.
"Negotiations for 0506 have only just started and the AoC is consulting with its members throughout the end of May and June," she said. "When we are totally clear about the ramifications of the funding allocations, we will go back to the negotiations in July. It is premature for Natfhe to be talking about strikes.
"We will want to do everything we can to treat lecturers fairly."
Pay talks between unions and the AoC took place this week and resume on July 8.