The Association of University Teachers is trying to draw its 47,000 members into a doomed campaign of industrial action over a "misconception" about the status of the union's minority of academic-related staff members, employers claimed this week.
As the AUT prepared for a ballot of its members next week on its executive's plans for industrial action, Geoffrey Copland, chairman of the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association, delivered a shot across the union's bows.
In a move dismissed by the AUT as spin designed to influence the ballot, Professor Copland said: "We are extremely concerned that the AUT is drawing its membership into a dispute that is essentially about its misconceptions concerning the possible effect on academic-related staff in pre-92 higher education institutions."
The AUT declared a dispute after last-ditch pay talks collapsed last month.
The union is concerned that the pay offer, 3.44 per cent this year and 3 per cent next, barely covers inflation.
It also claims that the proposed restructuring of staff career paths, which employers say will bring an additional 1.1 per cent average pay rise, introduces too many uncertainties, such as performance-based pay and a number of additional pay hurdles.
But the sticking point is the status of the AUT's academic-related members, such as registrars, librarians and computer technicians, who make up about a quarter of the union's membership.
Under the reforms, which are integral to the pay deal, all staff will be moved on to a single pay spine after undergoing a job evaluation exercise, which will measure their responsibilities and and determine where they will be placed on the spine.
Academic staff will continue to have their pay determined nationally and will be placed in one of four agreed national job grades, pegged to the pay spine. Academic-related staff will be evaluated and then negotiate pay locally.
Although public sector union Unison, which represents academic-related staff in new universities, has accepted the plan on the grounds that it is key to ensuring equal pay, the AUT opposes the loss of national bargaining on principle.
The AUT said that many academic-related staff, up to one in six, were set to have their jobs down-graded after job evaluation and could lose almost £50,000 over 21 years.
The employers said the figures were "rubbish", claiming that one in six would be upgraded and could earn about £9,000 more over 21 years.
Professor Copland, vice-chancellor of Westminster University, said the union's position on academic-related staff was not only incorrect, but also was "fundamentally at odds with the agreed aim of harmonisation of pay structures across the sector and the need to ensure equal pay for work of equal value across different staff groups".
Ucea adviser Peter Thorpe said the action was doomed to fail as it would lead to the total collapse of national bargaining for the AUT.
Malcolm Keight, assistant general secretary of the AUT, said: "The latest claims from Ucea are nothing more than spin. The anger felt by AUT members is not just about what would happen to academic-related staff. The dispute is about the future career earnings and pay structure for all those represented by the AUT. The employers' proposals would cut future earnings for academic and related staff, both existing and new. For instance, many lecturers would lose £6,300 over eight years."