PICTURE the scene. A Glasgow city centre hotel hosts a conference for further education union representatives. Enter stage left First Minister Alex Salmond who arrives to press the flesh with delegates attending the annual Educational Institute of Scotland-Further Education Lecturers’ Association (EIS-FELA) conference.

The conversation turns to the holy grail of national pay bargaining in a sector where the gulf between terms and conditions across the country is a running sore for the union.

Back in 2011, this was the setting that preceded the biggest shake-up in FE for more than 20 years and, in the ensuing years, Mr Salmond seemed true to his word as he committed the SNP to a return to a framework of national bargaining. This would replace the dysfunctional system of local bargaining across colleges which led to wide disparities in pay, working conditions, efficiencies and provision for students. In parts of the country lecturers can be as much as £12,000 a year better off and enjoy up to a week more in holidays.

Roll forward to 2016. Colleges have undergone huge change. Mergers have reduced their number, a new funding mechanism has been introduced and colleges are classified by the Office of National Statistics as part of the public sector. Because of these changes, colleges are no longer permitted to retain reserves, leading to the opaque use of Arms-Length Foundations (ALFs) with around £90 million in deposits.

In addition, colleges have faced an 18 per cent cut in funding between 2011 and 2015 yet according, to Audit Scotland, “the overall financial health of the sector is stable”. Colleges have committed to negotiating nationally through their employers’ association, which represents colleges, while college teaching staff are represented at those talks by the EIS.

We would accept a number of these changes have been positive and forward thinking. However, many of the problems of the old regimes persist. The previous model of incorporated colleges saw the development of personal fiefdoms, poor governance and free reign for individuals to exert control over institutions spending large sums of public money.

The Herald has reported on numerous examples of the abuse of public funds in FE over the past few years, and on the lack of transparency intransferring public funds into ALFs. The operation of national bargaining illustrates another of the difficulties the sector is experiencing.

Structures and machinery have been established to clear the way to a national framework for negotiation and consultation with staff.

Yet it often appears that malign influences are at play to block effective operation of the machinery. Staff representatives regularly feel employers are stalling on taking forward national agreements.

In March, after the first national strike in FE for more than 20 years, negotiations concluded with agreement on plans to ensure a phased introduction of equal pay and common conditions of service across colleges.

The EIS fully complied with the agreement by making proposals on how staff could move to the same salary by April 2019 as set out in the agreement. On all parts of the agreement EIS presented detailed papers including proposals on fair pay, migration and a complete set of national terms and conditions.

But, in our view, the employers’ side has persistently stalled, leading to every single milestone being overtaken. The fear is that there is an attempt to re-interpret the joint National Agreement. This cannot be allowed to happen.

The FE service is a public service; it is funded from the public purse; and it deserves and needs transparency and accountability. It would seem that someone has to call in the forces who would seek to undermine the new future for that service.

It would seem that a sector that contributes just short of £15 billion to the Scottish economy needs, once again, a key player to emerge to press the flesh with key individuals in the sector and make something happen.

That person, of course, could be another First Minister or a particularly powerful Cabinet Secretary for Education. It is evident that intervention is required to ensure this important service functions effectively and to deliver on the promises first made five years ago.

John Kelly is president of the EIS-FELA.