Midland college lecturers will today stage a day of strikes and hold a mass demonstration at a Birmingham conference being attended by Education Secretary Ruth Kelly to protest over pay.
The twin-pronged demonstration is designed to draw maximum attention to the sector's long-standing funding dispute with the Government.
Thousands of Midland students will be affected, with 30 out of the region's 39 colleges taking part in the industrial action.
Meanwhile, up to 800 disgruntled lecturers are expected to converge on the International Convention Centre where Ms Kelly is attending the annual Association of Colleges conference.
The protesters will be calling on the Education Secretary to close an estimated ten per cent salary gap between college tutors and schoolteachers.
Chris May, regional organiser for college lecturers' union Natfhe, said it was regrettable that students would suffer but claimed it was vital to address the pay imbalance to secure the sector's long-term future.
"There will be significant impact by this strike," he said.
"We always regret disruption of student learning. But it is important that the public are aware that 50 per cent of lecturers will be retiring in the next ten years.
"If further education lecturers don't achieve parity with schoolteachers there will be a significant recruitment crisis that will affect students much more significantly than lecturers withdrawing their services for a day."
Some 26,000 lecturers across the country are expected to take part in strike action today.
Natfhe has rejected a 2.8 per cent pay offer from the Government. It claims a 3.2 per cent pay increase awarded to schoolteachers this year has merely widened the pay gap in real terms.
The union is also angry at colleges that have failed to implement a new nationallyagreed pay scale that would increase the maximum salary of a qualified lecturer to £30,705 and see starting salaries rise to £20,283 for qualified teaching staff.
According to the union, 65 per cent of college principals have ignored the deal. In the West Midlands, about half of them have failed to adopt it. they say.
Mr May also attacked the gap between funding received per student in colleges and schools.
"Further education lecturers feel the need to highlight the gap that exists in funding between schools and colleges," he said.
"There is a gap of 13 per cent which means that an average A level student at a further education college gets £400 less per year spent on his or her education."
Colleges claim they are increasingly teaching the same cohort of pupils as secondary schools with the 14 to 19 reform agenda focusing on vocational education for youngsters - an area they specialise in.
There are 100,000 14 to 19-year-olds being taught in further education, a figure that is estimated to rise to about 250,000 by 2008.
The Government admits there is a salary gap between college lecturers and schoolteachers. But it says extra cash has been pumped into the sector, including a £1.2 billion rise for 2005/06.
Ms Kelly is today expected to announce new measures to address the funding gap between schools and colleges including withdrawing cash for pupils who do not complete their study.
This week's Foster Report into the sector has called for better quality teaching, higher standards in colleges, and tougher penalties for failing colleges.
* Natfhe's protest will take place outside the ICC from 12.30pm.