College chiefs and lecturers' union leaders have blamed each other for "throwing away" a chance to take an extra £5 million in government funds for pay, enough to avoid strikes next month.
The Association of Colleges has claimed that lecturers' union Natfhe had "rejected" the money, which would have been available from April next year under the Teaching Pay Initiative (TPI), because it was offered on condition that the union abandoned its threat of industrial action.
But Natfhe said it could not accept the offer until the AoC provided an assurance that it would advise its members to use the extra money to boost lecturers' pay, rather than spending it on something else.
The union's leaders said such an assurance would have increased the employers' pay offer from 3.7 per cent to 4 per cent, which would have been enough to persuade its further education committee to recommend acceptance and to call off strike ballots.
The AoC said Natfhe's decision not only meant that colleges across the country faced possible strike action on October 3 and 4, but that the offer of an extra £5 million may be permanently withdrawn.
Ivor Jones, the AoC's director of employment policy, said: "The money is off the table now. We are very disappointed. The money was not guaranteed: it was down to Natfhe to respond to the offer. We could not say how it would be used until we knew that it was going to be available."
Paul Mackney, Natfhe's general secretary, said: "When the money was confirmed by the government, we had expected to have an offer from the AoC of a statement on how the money should be used. But we never got it. I am appalled that they did not come forward with that, which would have allowed us to take a different course of action."
Natfhe will now ballot its members on whether to reject the employers' pay offer and go ahead with its planned two-day strike in 280 further education colleges in England and Wales.
Mr Jones said the AoC had still not abandoned hope of persuading ministers to release more money to help bridge the sector's significant pay gap.
"It is one of our manifesto commitments to fight for substantial improvements in the pay of all our staff, and we have already asked for £33 million this year to extend TPI to all college staff," he said.