Strikes by lecturers to coincide with the Labour party conference in September now look inevitable, Paul Mackney, general secretary of the lecturers' union NATFHE, told FE Focus.
Support staff look set to join the action as their executive said they were urging members to reject the offer. Christina McAnea, national officer for the public-sector union Unison, said: "The pay offer is derisory. It would have been just pound;256 a year for many of our members - that's less than pound;1 a day."
College managers have also come closer than ever to taking industrial action. Peter Pendle, chief executive of the Association for College Management, said: "We can understand the pressure the colleges are under, but we cannot accept anything that widens the difference with schools'
"We are seeking the members' views on the offer before considering what steps to take next."
The Association of Colleges said employers had squeezed every penny they could from available cash to offer 2.3 per cent or pound;400 a year to all staff on less than pound;11,000.
Ivor Jones, AOC director of employment policy, said: "This is a significant move on our members' part to try to avert industrial action. The 1.5 per cent offer we made on April 16 was all that was affordable, but they aspire to give some level of catch-up with teachers. The problem is that the core funding is still inadequate."
Mr Mackney said: "The Government says the (12 per cent) gap with schools will be closed by 2004, the Learning and Skills Council is on the record saying the gap is unacceptable and the AOC says it wants to pay more. But no one is taking responsibility for steps to bring it about."
"An offer effectively 2.7 per cent less that that given to teachers is simply not acceptable," he said.
Joint action by several unions would now be considered.