THE terms of a pay claim by college unions which has sparked a walk-out by thousands of lecturers is "not reasonable", ministers have said.

John Swinney, the Education Secretary, told the Scottish Parliament a previous rise to establish equal pay - known as harmonisation - should be recognised as part of the overall settlement.

Members of the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) are currently taking strike action over a failure to agree an additional cost of living increase.

Asked about the deal during an evidence session at the Scottish Parliament's education committee Mr Swinney said: "I think a reasonable objective is to secure a cost of living increase that is affordable within the sector and I don't think it is reasonable to discount the effect of pay harmonisation in the process.

"The college sector finds itself in a position able to harmonise the contracts of further education lecturers across the country, which I'm very pleased the Government has been able to secure as a policy objective.

"In addition to that, college employers are able to make cost-of-living increases available to members of staff. I don't think it's defensible to separate harmonisation and cost-of-living as two separate things."

However, Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the EIS union, said the harmonisation increase addressed decades where staff were underpaid.

He added: "For a significant number of lecturers at the top end of previous scales equal pay has not produced any increase for the past two years.

"A failure to maintain the value of the equal pay deal begins an immediate slide into the devaluing of that agreement which is something which should be unacceptable to all parties, including Scottish Government.”

Lecturers joined picket lines on Wednesday after rejecting a 12.2 per cent pay increase from Colleges Scotland, saying the offer does not constitute a cost-of-living rise after a three-year wage freeze. Lecturers also gathered outside the Scottish Parliament to protest.

The EIS has accused "intransigent management" of "using conflated figures in publicity to obfuscate the pay claim", and is calling for a pay rise above the increasing cost of living.

Members of two teaching unions voted by 90 per cent to 10 per cent in favour of the strike action in December, on a turnout of 52 per cent, after rejecting the pay offer Colleges Scotland claims would have raised average salaries from £36,125 to £40,522 over the past three years.

Shona Struthers, Colleges Scotland chief executive, said: "It is extremely disappointing that the union is taking disruptive strike action for the third time in four years, especially when the colleges' pay offer, combined with salary rises from the 'same pay' settlement, would see lecturers' national average pay increase over three years by 12.2 per cent, which is a cash increase of over £5,083.

"This offer on the table is the best overall pay rise for public-sector workers anywhere in the UK but the EIS wants even more. They also want more pay for cost of living, but a pay rise is a pay rise, irrespective of whether it comes from the 'same pay' agreement or the additional cost-of-living offer."

Colleges argue the pay rise demanded by unions is unaffordable and will lead to cuts.