Employers have made an "unprecedented" demand that college staff give up automatic pay progression and agree to more "flexible" hours and holidays before they will make an offer in this year's pay negotiations.
The proposal from the Association of Colleges (Aoc) at the annual talks, which result in recommendations for colleges on pay and conditions, was prompted by the 12 per cent reduction in funding for adult skills.
But unions, which had put in a claim for a 5 per cent pay rise, said that the conditions were "unreasonable" because they required staff to make concessions without being offered anything in return.
"To be honest, we were gobsmacked," said Barry Lovejoy, head of FE at the University and College Union. "We didn't anticipate an enormous offer. But our members can't accept this. We told them to go away and think about it. We couldn't go any further that day."
He said it was the biggest threat to FE pay and conditions since the "bleak period" of the 1990s, when the pre-incorporation contracts were dismantled. But even then, employers had still made a pay offer. "I think it's unprecedented," Mr Lovejoy said.
The AoC added to the unions' disappointment by refusing a proposal to create an agreement on how lesson observations should take place. As Ofsted makes increasingly harsh judgements on FE teaching, staff say that observation has become more punitive. Mr Lovejoy said that employers and staff should be able to work together on the issue. "I think we share a lot with the AoC on this," he said.
Chris Fabby, Unison's national officer for further education, said that colleges had other options, such as cutting spending on agency staff or consultants, and that it was not necessary to change terms and conditions for all, when some colleges were in stronger financial health.
"It isn't acceptable for the AoC to put down conditions that they expect us to meet before they would make an offer. The conditions are unreasonable," he said. "While we recognise that there are serious financial pressures on some colleges, others are in a far better position to deal with the current situation."
The AoC said that funding cuts had reached a stage where many colleges could no longer afford to lose more teaching and support staff while still serving the same number of students, forcing them to consider other ways of reducing costs.
"The original claim from the unions for a 5 per cent pay increase would come with an approximate price tag of pound;200 million. Unfortunately, with the UK economy bumping along the bottom of a double-dip recession, and year-on-year cuts to government funding for colleges, this is unaffordable," said Evan Williams, the association's director of employment.
"As government funding reduces, the number of students does not. The priority for our members is to continue to serve the needs of students and their local communities and, to achieve this, it is imperative that jobs are preserved."
At Sunderland College, cuts of pound;2.2 million to the pound;47 million budget prompted managers to propose pay cuts. Some staff faced losing more than pound;9,000 a year, although after negotiations the college is hopeful that this can be reduced to pound;3,500.
Principal Angela O'Donoghue said that the cuts came on top of two previous years of funding reductions where the college had lost pound;3.3 million in total. "We reduced everything we possibly could, we have cut back on the money we give to curriculum areas, we have cut back on electricity, on all our facilities, we have looked at absolutely everything," she said.
Although she said most staff in FE were motivated by the desire to educate, Ms O'Donoghue said she feared that wage reductions forced by the funding cuts would make it harder to attract and keep good teachers. "I have no doubt that there may be an impact on quality if people feel that nobody values them. But as senior management, we have got to have a balanced budget," she said.
CUTS ON THE CARDS
Across the country, pressure on college budgets has meant that many colleges have already proposed pay cuts and redundancies. These include Sunderland College, Gateshead College, Chesterfield College, Bolton College, Leeds City College and Tresham College in Northamptonshire.
Photo credit: Neil Turner
Original headline: Union is `gobsmacked' by the AoC's threat to pay and conditions