The lecturers' union executive slapped down a conference decision to ballot for a one-day strike should this year's pay claim fail, voting 28 to 10 in a decisive snub to rank-and-file college activists.
But the union's pay claim, due to be ratified today, is expected to remain based on a call for a Pounds 30-a-week pay rise and a return to the old Silver Book contracts for all lecturers.
National executive member Peter Latham said the Left had "woefully misjudged the mood of members.
"The first thing they ask when industrial action is proposed is 'Is this legal?'. The mood of the membership is for a tough line, but not this tough. "
A statement issued by the executive said it would not "knowingly take industrial action which is outside the law which could lead to sequestration of union funds."
The NATFHE pay claim, designed to redress the balance between lecturers and school teaching staff, is sure to provoke acrimony when the union meets the Association of Colleges for pay talks later this year.
And it flies in the face of Labour policy after shadow education minister Bryan Davies promised no return to the old local authority contracts.
The AOC was still assessing its position as The TES went to press, but principals are sure to dismiss the claim for a return to the Silver Book after wholesale progress towards locally negotiated contracts.
The tight budget round facing colleges, and the unexpected loss of expansion funding, will also eliminate scope for a generous pay rounds.
College managers made a more restrained pay claim, with the Association of College Management asking for a flat 5 per cent rise. NATFHE's management pay group will meet next Friday to decide its claim.
ACM leaders said they wanted to keep pace with settlements for managers in the school sector, and emphasised the role of management in coping with recent shifts in policy, most notably the crisis over college expansion.
A spokesman said: "Colleges are individual institutions in a marketplace and it is therefore the management team in each college which must now respond to the almost capricious twists and turns of Government policy to ensure college survival and continued progress."