New factions are set to emerge within the college superbody in the wake of Roger Ward's appointment as chief executive, principals predict.
Though few are anticipating many colleges quitting the Association of Colleges altogether now that fragile unity has been achieved, the range of views within the sector is expected to manifest itself in new power groupings.
Mr Ward, former chief executive of the Colleges' Employers' Forum, swept to power this week as the unanimous choice of the board of the AOC. He defeated three other shortlisted candidates including Ruth Gee, former chief executive of the Association for Colleges which merged with CEF to form the new superbody.
As Mr Ward, supported and detested in equal measure, attempts to establish a statesmanlike style to represent the long-awaited "single voice" for further education, other interests are expected to jostle for prominence.
Chris Hughes, principal of Gateshead College, predicted internal politics would replace the old tensions between the old AFC and CEF. He said: "I think you will now get more people taking an interest in what actually happens and trying to exert more influence. A more mature sector would learn to recognise that groupings are inevitable."
Dewsbury College principal Vince Hall, an AFC loyalist like Mr Hughes, also identified groups leaning towards one or other of the two parent organisations, though he expected the silent majority of colleges would "wait and see" how the new body developed.
But he suggested Mr Ward was still perceived as an employers' leader and faced a "steep learning curve" to take on board the curriculum, staff development and other issues preoccupying colleges.
Mike Austin, principal of Accrington and Rossendale College and former AFC president, stressed the range of responsibilities confronting the new chief executive. But he warned against possible splits from AOC, saying FE's opponents would "rub their hands in glee if we fell apart again".
Lewisham College principal Ruth Silver said: "Roger is sharp enough to know AOC is not CEF and will require different practices. It is a whole new debate now."
Mr Ward, employing the unfamiliar vocabulary of friendship and consensus, insists a line can be drawn under past tensions. He told The TES: "This is a time for healing and the healing process begins today."
Colleges will need to unite behind Mr Ward on the issue of winning more funding - one of the key tasks of the new organisation.
He pledged to fight for "a bigger slice of the cake", particularly in the current consultation over convergence of funding in post-16 education.
However, some principals remain sceptical over his chances of winning favour with a possible Labour government, believing he was too "cosy" with Conservative ministers while forcing through contracts changes.
In his new post, Mr Ward is unlikely to maintain his active role in industrial relations - a task set to be left to a deputy. He claimed strife over contracts was "an old agenda", though many principals feel they were left to conclude the battle he started.
NATFHE general secretary John Akker, whose members plan a national one-day strike next month, called on the new association to take the opportunity to re-examine past industrial relations practices and seek a more conciliatory and constructive approach.
The AOC's relationship with the English and Welsh Further Education Funding Councils would be one of "constructive tension", Mr Ward said, pledging to take a stand against the councils where necessary in the interests of students, staff and colleges.
He also promised a vigorous defence of colleges in the face of the "vested interests" of schools, higher education and training and enterprise councils.
Many principals this week paid tribute to Ms Gee's achievements as AFC chief executive. Ms Gee instigated merger talks a year ago and lost out to Mr Ward over the top post in a close battle.