A FIVE-YEAR battle between further education lecturers and employers could be over after both sides agreed this week to a proposed settlement on pay and conditions.
This would introduce a national framework setting minimum standards of employment but with the freedom for colleges to vary working conditions locally.
Ballot papers will go out this autumn to members of Natfhe, the university and college lecturers' union, asking for their response to the settlement, with results expected by the end of October.
Further education employers and employees have been at loggerheads over contracts since 1993, when the then employers' body, the Colleges' Employers' Forum, replaced the old Silver Book agreement with new contracts of employment. These provided for unlimited teaching hours.
Since then, Natfhe has negotiated local agreements with about 200 colleges.
In a separate move, the Association of Colleges has also offered a pay increase of 2.7 per cent, again subject to consultation with union members.
Natfhe said the agreement still fell far short of its hopes but was "the best that could be achieved through negotiations".
A key sticking point was limits on the number of hours lecturers could be asked to teach. The agreed framework limits teaching to between 800 and 880 hours per year and between 22 and per week, which Natfhe still calls "excessive".
It also includes provisions for a 37-hour working week, entitlement to five days for staff development annually, and 50 days' annual holiday, including bank holidays.
New agreements have also been reached on redundancy consultation and union recognition, while joint employer-union working parties will be set up to discuss pay structures, part-time workers, the use of agency staff and personnel procedures.
The union has separately agreed to accept that lecturer support posts, such as demonstrators or instructors, will not be subject to the agreed framework.
Sue Dutton, acting chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said this would allow institutions to employ a core of staff on the agreed framework and treat other staff, with different duties, more flexibly.
"The agreement will put an end once and for all to the dispute, which has frustrated the sector's ability to modernise its employment practices," she said.
She said the comprehensive spending review had made it clear that further education would have to become more flexible, while recent fairness at work legislation had helped change the climate between employers and employees.
Paul Mackney, Natfhe general secretary, said: "Our members have always said they wanted to get back to national conditions. While we are not thrilled about what's on the table, it does represent a basic agreement on minimum standards for lecturers on which we can begin to build."
Gerald Imison, deputy general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, which has managed to reach agreement with employers in previous years, said: "I have always been saddened by Natfhe's reluctance to engage in meaningful negotiations in the past, believing that by working jointly much more could have been achieved."