Heavyweight opposition from the heads of three science departments has prompted Cambridge University to rethink pay reforms that would offer better salaries for senior dons at the expense of junior staff.
The heads of physics, chemistry and engineering have warned that long-serving technicians and support staff already at the top of their salary grade could be "demoralised" and "disadvantaged", which would damage teaching and research at the elite university.
The Cambridge branch of the Association of University Teachers has also warned that while the starting salary of research associates would be increased, their longer term salary prospects would fall.
The AUT said that research associates could expect to earn £,116 after seven years under the current system, but those appointed under the new system would earn £1,483 less at the same stage in their careers.
The new arrangements - for implementation in 2006 - would give the university greater flexibility in professorial pay, stretching the pay band between Pounds 44,935 and £92,000.
Andy Cliff, the university's pro vice-chancellor for personnel, said that Cambridge was among the first universities to develop pay proposals under the new national framework agreement on pay reform, following Southampton and Nottingham through the same process.
The intention of the £4 million restructure was to reward staff "more appropriately", allow the university to compete in national and international labour markets and to create a system that would stand up to challenge on equal pay grounds, he said.
But Professor Cliff pledged that concerns about the proposals would be taken into account.
"We recognise that changes will be needed in the grades that will be covered by support staff, potentially introducing one or two more grades in that area," he said.
The current pay of non-academic staff who would otherwise lose out from the changes would be protected for four years - after which time they would either see their responsibilities increased, be able to move to a new post to match the grade or accept a pay cut.
At a meeting of the university's 3,000-member Regent House earlier this month, Richard Friend, chairman of the school of physical sciences, said that the published proposals suggested "pay cuts" for up to 250 members of his school's support staff, "whose contributions we value highly".
He said the reforms should be implemented only if there was "overwhelming evidence that doing so would benefit the university's teaching and research".
Jeremy Sanders, head of the chemistry department, said that most professors in the experimental sciences "are helpless without the technical infrastructure around them".
Keith Glover, head of the department of engineering, agreed. He commented:
"The department depends heavily on the commitment of its support staff."