Scotland's Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service has revealed a dramatic increase in tertiary sector disputes over pay and conditions.
Frank Blair, director of Acas Scotland, presenting its annual report for 1997, said: "The education sector in 1997 was particularly fraught, as universities and colleges sought to make changes to working practices."
Five years ago, Acas did not hear of problems in tertiary education, Mr Field said. But last year, it was involved in 23 collective disputes in colleges and six in universities, out of a total of 223 Scottish cases.
"The main issues we dealt with revolved round pay, redundancies, class contact time, recognition or derecognition of unions and holiday cover," Mr Blair said.
"All colleges are finding it difficult to balance their budgets and run the services they have previously run. If they are going to effect changes, inevitably that is going to affect the people who are employed, and that is one area where conflict is large."
Mr Blair said half a dozen institutions had also sought help from the Acas advisory mediation service which helps to avoid disputes by bringing together management and employee representatives to address internal issues jointly.
"This is looking at longer-term solutions so that either a problem doesn't recur, or if it does, the parties are better able to cope with it."
Ronnie Smith, general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland, said further education was the focal point of difficulties. It differed from higher education in not having a national forum for pay and conditions.
"Further education has been atomised into 40-plus free-standing units and, therefore, there are 40-plus opportunities for disputes to arise. The fragmentation of bargaining has been a major contributor to the difficulties, taken together with the financial climate," he said. "The colleges came to that from a position of great inexperience in industrial relations matters."
The restoration of a national bargaining forum would not only reduce the number of "bushfires", but would offer a much more efficient use of time, Mr Smith said.
David Bleiman, assistant general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, praised Acas's work, and said: "It can be very helpful to have expert third-party advice in resolving disputes."