Further education lecturers were on the brink of a national strike this week as college managers rebuffed their demands for an immediate £3,000 flat-rate rise.
Leaders of Natfhe, the lecturers' union, wrote to every college head warning that industrial action would begin in May unless they met the pay demands this week.
In response, the Association of Colleges advised its members not to engage in individual negotiations with Natfhe and accused the union of "unilaterally embarking on a course of action that runs counter to both the letter and to the purpose of the National Joint Forum, which is to negotiate pay issues within an agreed framework and to an agreed timetable".
David Gibson, AoC chief executive, complained that the union was making unrealistic demands only two weeks before the NJF was due to meet to open negotiations on 2001-02 pay claims.
In a letter to Paul Mackney, Natfhe's general secretary, he said: "Since there can be no realistic expectation of any pay agreement prior to the conclusion of the NJF negotiations, we think it is inappropriate for Natfhe, in March 2001, to be issuing threats of industrial action to commence on May 1."
But Sue Berryman, Natfhe's further education chief, said the union was simply following up its interim pay claim, issued to the AoC in January. It was legally obliged to deal with individual colleges in the event of a dispute, she pointed out.
Ms Berryman said she thought it unlikely that Natfhe's interim claim would be met by the government's plans for a teaching pay initiative in further education, which is expected to be announced next week.
"We are trying to bring further education lecturers' pay up to the level of school teachers. Given that school teachers got an extra 8 per cent, while we have been promised 2 per cent, it seems unlikely the TPI will do much to close the gap," she said.