Lecturers are preparing to ballot for strike action following the "insult" of colleges' 0.2 per cent pay offer.
Despite warnings from the University and College Union (UCU) leadership over last year's failed strike vote - the first in its history - members at this week's annual congress chose to begin ballot preparations for action early next academic year.
It was the further education conference's most intensely debated motion of the weekend, however, with many delegates concerned that the wider membership was not yet ready for industrial action over the issue.
James Eaden, from Chesterfield College, said: "If we don't take action, it will be seen by the Association of Colleges as a sign of weakness. They'll say we're not going to fight over pay."
Members also approved a separate motion saying a below-inflation offer was "an insult to all FE lecturers and will not be tolerated", reiterating UCU policy that pay should be equal to school teachers' earnings. They rejected a motion calling for a consultation with branches once negotiations reach an end.
Some delegates warned that members, some of whose jobs were under threat, were not ready for a strike vote over pay yet, and that preparing for a ballot would make them feel pressured.
John McCormack, from Newcastle College, said: "We have got to say, `This union will respond but how it responds is up to the members.' We've got to give members the choice and treat them with respect."
Caroline Gray, from City College Birmingham and a UCU national executive committee member, said: "It's only a few months since we lost the first national ballot. Unless we remember that, we are doing our members an enormous disservice."
Others replied that last year's delay between deciding to ballot and the vote taking place had lost the union momentum, however, and by beginning preparations now the union would be able to act faster.
Before the debate, Barry Lovejoy, the union's head of FE, told members: "I'm not expecting applause, but I need to say a couple of things. There's no doubt that the fact that we did not win a national ballot last year was a severe setback. It was the first time this trade union has ever lost a ballot. We need to be realistic about this.
"It's not a question of principle, it's a question of tactics. In the early 1990s the main issue was conditions of service and contracts. At the end of the 1990s, we made progress on pay.
"Over the next three or four years, it looks like a return to what we saw in the dark times of the 1990s.
"We haven't even seen anything about the real cuts we are going to get from this coalition (Government). I'm saying that not to spread doom and gloom, though God, it's depressing. To meet these challenges, we have to be clear and concise about what our priorities are."
Members needed to address threats like The Manchester College's plans to create different contracts for teachers working with adults and teenagers, he said, and called for the union to recruit new members, including expanding membership to trainers and assessors.
"Our battle in the years ahead is not just to protect our conditions of service, although obviously that's a clear concern," Mr Lovejoy said. "We are in the forefront of the battle to save the opportunities for the working class in this country."