AFTER six years of strife, colleges and unions have finally struck a deal which could bring the era of conflict to an end. Students, lecturers and principals will hope that this is not another false dawn but the start of a new era of harmony.
Since incorporation in 1993, the growth in student numbers has been mirrored by an increase in staff unrest. At the height of industrial action, colleges topped the strike league two years running - 280,000 working days were lost in 1994 alone.
The dispute began when the Colleges Employers Forum, led by its then chief executive Roger Ward, encouraged colleges to tear up lecturers' contracts, increase teaching hours and employ more part-time and casual staff. The changes helped colleges increase student numbers within tight financial restraints but they also led to a loss of experienced teaching staff, falling morale and concerns about teaching quality.
Although the moderate Association of Teachers and Lecturers reached agreement, through arbitration, with the Association of Colleges (which succeeded the CEF) the struggle continued for NATFHE, the largest lecturers' union.
Many lecturers - those who have refused to give up the "silver book" pre-incorporation conditions of employment - have not received a pay rise in five years. Some senior staff have become marooned without hope of advancement as colleges have tried to cut costs by reducing numbers of higher grade staff. Others have faced a stark choice of lower pay or unemployment.
The election of a Labour government with lifelong learning high on its agenda has put pressure on both sides to reach an agreement.
Ministers have made it clear that extra cash must feed through into higher teaching standards. The need for the FE sector to present a united front to ministers is highlighted in the agreement by a commitment to joint lobbying.
But it has taken a change in leadership at both NATFHE and the Association of Colleges to break the deadlock.
In NATFHE's case it has taken four changes. After years of internal bickering between left-wing activists and an indecisive leadership, the election of Paul Mackney as the union's general secretary at the start of 1998 was a watershed. Mr Mackney moved quickly to offer an olive branch to employers while keeping his members on-side.
Just two years ago the union was demanding a pound;30 per week pay rise and a maximum 21 hours a week contact time for its staff. But Mr Mackney has been determined that NATFHE would not be sidelined at what he sees as an exciting time for colleges.
Similarly the AoC has relaxed its hardline stance since Roger Ward left last year. It is probably not a coincidence that the formal breakthrough has come just a month after David Gibson was appointed as its new chief executive, and so soon after Mr Mackney's appointment.
Both sides have been edging towards a deal. In October last year, a deal was reached but thrown out by a ballot of NATFHE's membership. They balked at the maximum 27 teaching hours a week contained in the agreement. It remains to be seen whether this latest agreement will overcome that obstacle.
NATFHE left-wingers are likely to try once again to wreck the deal. But the dwindling enthusiasm for the dispute was shown by a ballot turn-out of only slightly over 20 per cent.
Details of the agreement - including professional development, disciplinary procedures and recruitment practices - will be hammered out in further talks at both national and local level. It is these talks which are likely to determine the success or failure of the latest peace deal.