Further education teachers in England are to step up their campaign for national pay and conditions for all staff - and may resort to industrial action - after a similar deal was struck for lecturers in Wales.
The University and College Union (UCU) has admitted that it is looking across the border "with envy" after a historic agreement was reached last week guaranteeing a common employment contract for all FE employees in Wales. The move will cover support staff, lecturers and managers from September 2016.
It marks a growing gulf between the working lives of FE staff in different parts of the UK. Whereas English contract deals are negotiated on a college-by-college basis, Northern Ireland already has a national system of pay and conditions. Scotland is also moving towards a similar agreement.
Lecturers in Wales are often better off than their counterparts in England in terms of pay, because of a national agreement linking their salary to that of teachers. In England, FE unions take part in annual pay negotiations with the Association of Colleges (AoC), but individual colleges do not always follow through on agreements.
Now the UCU says it will pressure the AoC for "meaningful" national bargaining on pay and press for a national contract agreement. Andrew Harden, the UCU's national official for FE, said: "We have a plan to look at ways of using targeted action to support meaningful national bargaining.
"We would like to see the AoC negotiate in a manner where agreements they make with us are implemented in all colleges. We also want to broaden the scope of the negotiations to include contracts.
"We do look towards Wales with envy. Our members would like a similar situation here in terms of pay and conditions and it's something we aspire to. There are claims of inflexibility if you have a national contract, but I think it's the opposite. If the government wants to effect some change in the sector, the levers are not there. If you had a national contract you could do that more effectively."
The prospect of industrial action comes after recent indefinite strike action by UCU members at Lambeth College, London, over changes to contracts for new members of staff.
The ATL teaching union said it shared the UCU's goal for a national pay deal. Steven Crane, national official for pay and conditions, said: "If we could arrive at a situation where colleges in England accepted they would follow a national agreement on pay, conditions or both, that would be ideal."
However, potential barriers to national pay and contract agreements in England include size and complexity: there are more than 300 FE colleges in England, compared with just 15 in Wales and six in Northern Ireland. But unions claim the main barrier is political will. In Wales, the national contract was a manifesto commitment by the Labour Party before the 2011 National Assembly elections.
After the agreement was signed, Welsh education minister Huw Lewis said: "We believe college staff who do such a great job supporting our learners should be rewarded fairly and equally with their counterparts across the further education sector in Wales."
This is in contrast to the approach taken by the Westminster government, which views colleges as independent institutions responsible for all matters relating to contracts and pay.
An AoC spokesman said: "The FE sector in England is far larger and more complex than that in Wales, so it is less clear what the benefits of a common contract would be for the 350 English colleges and whether it would be truly sustainable.
"Our colleges are, rightly, autonomous institutions and the business and financial decisions they make are shaped by their own strategic goals and objectives, the conditions of the local labour market and the national funding environment."