Full-time lecturers now have to teach more hours, take shorter holidays and work with ever more flexibility.
More than 15,000 lecturers - a fifth of the entire force - have been made redundant or taken early retirement since 1993. The proportion of full-time lecturing staff has shrunk substantially and while part-time jobs have mushroomed.
In some colleges the part-time, hourly-paid workforce has been dismissed and re-hired as "self-employed" staff through outside agencies. Others employ lecturers on variable hours contracts, with restricted employment rights.
Research by lecturers' union, NATFHE shows four out of 10 lecturers were on temporary contracts in 1994-95. Many full-time lecturers in FE and even more part-timers are deeply demoralised.
An independent survey of NATFHE members in 1996 revealed that 35 per cent were "actively" seeking work outside the profession, 60 per cent were "considering" leaving it and 80 per cent would seriously consider retiring early if they could afford to.
Many lecturers have retired through stress, depression or ill health. Middle managers have been moved into lower-paid jobs or sacked, and salaries have slipped in comparison with teachers in schools and sixth-form colleges.
Yet the salaries of principals rose consistently post-incorporation, the median increase being 11.6 per cent by March 1995.
It happened after the then Colleges' Employers' Forum, under Roger Ward's leadership, decided to rip up the Silver Book agreement on working conditions. Most principals felt it was inflexible and gave lecturers too much power.
The Conservative government threatened to "hold back" pound;50 million from college funds if colleges failed to introduce more flexible teaching arrangements.
Colleges largely offered lecturers flexible contracts, based on the CEF model. They included no limits on teaching hours or on the number of evenings worked. These were offered first to new lecturers, then, with financial inducements to existing staff, and finally, with threats of dismissal, to recalcitrant staff.
On the other hand, the cost-driven agenda of the new FE funding councils - more training for less money - led more colleges to make economies wherever they could. In many this meant making redundancies or rehiring part-time staff on less generous contracts.
The FE sector has a long history of employing hourly paid, part-time lecturers on casual termly or yearly contracts. These did not normally include pension or holiday pay. Part-time numbers have burgeoned in the past five years and those employed by some agencies have no bargaining and few employment rights.
A protracted and bitter dispute with NATFHE ensued, played out in local skirmishes. The employers controversially agreed to recognise the Association of Teachers and Lecturers and the Association of School Managers and to negotiate with managers, lecturers and administrative staff separately.
Today there is still no national agreement on contracts between NATFHE and the Association of Colleges. However around 218 FE colleges have negotiated local contracts with NATFHE but some 132 other colleges, often the smaller ones, have not.
These agreements, which involved pay rises, increased teaching hours from 21 to 23 or 24 a week, often restricted evening working to two nights a week, stopped unlimited weekend working and cut holidays from 70 days a year to between 50 and 60. The remaining 3 per cent of lecturing staff on old Silver Book conditions have not had a pay rise since 1993.
Then in September 1995 a new company, Education Lecturing Services, started offering colleges a sub-contracted lecturing service. This involved supplying teachers to colleges. ELS was recognised as the approved supplier by the CEF and the Association of Colleges.
Lecturers are technically self-employed, although ELS deducts tax and National Insurance. They do not get paid holidays, sick pay, redundancy, unfair dismissal or pension rights. Today ELS services around 200 FE colleges and one in four sixth-form colleges.
Since the arrival of ELS several other companies, such as Nord Anglia Education, have started similar services for colleges.
ELS has been criticised for paying its teachers below the appropriate hourly rate but its chief executive Geoff Lennox, says that the average hourly rate is pound;18.61 an hour and that some specialists get paid pound;35 or pound;40 an hour. Today ELS has more than 40,000 lecturers on its books.
A further complication was that in 1994 a House of Lords ruling on part-timers rights led to employers having to give part-timers rights to redundancy pay, time off for maternity leave and the opportunity to claim unfair dismissal.
The Further Education Funding Council has made cash available to enable colleges to meet these additional costs and some colleges have employed part-time staff on fractional permanent contracts. Other colleges have decided to use agency staff where these additional costs do not arise.
Employers are also now required to contribute towards the occupational pension schemes of part-time employers who elect to join such schemes following a decision by the European Court.
The situation in the country's 100-plus sixth-form colleges is slightly different. Their lecturers used to be employed on school teacher's pay scales and were never employed on Silver Book conditions. National agreements on pay and conditions with the relevant unions do exist, and staff have moved to new contracts. There has not been the same history of industrial strife in this sector, although teachers' teaching hours have increased and their holidays have been cut.
Since the arrival of the new Labour Government the climate for industrial relations in FE colleges has changed. Baroness Blackstone, the higher and further education minister, has confirmed that officials are reviewing the status of the part-time employment agencies.
She has also, apparently, told the employers that they must sort out the sector's industrial relations problems.
The Government has also indicated that it wants more collaboration, and less red-in-tooth-and-claw competition, between colleges and would be happy to see a return to some co-operation with local education authorities in future.
The departure of Roger Ward from the AOC, the imminent election of a new board and the arrival of a new general secretary at NATFHE, Paul Mackney, all contribute to the likelihood of an improvement in the industrial relations climate in FE in future. But will this happen?