University employers have accused the Association of University Teachers of refusing to "engage seriously" in pay talks for 2006-07 after the union declared an industrial dispute before the start of next week's formal pay talks.
In a letter sent to AUT general secretary Sally Hunt last month, Geoffrey Copland, chairman of the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association, says that the AUT has "contradicted" its own claims that it is keen to reach a negotiated deal by declaring an official dispute eight months before 2006 pay is due to be settled and before the start of formal talks.
"As made clear... the employers are very ready to discuss your (pay) claim and its implications," writes Dr Copland, vice-chancellor of Westminster University.
"We had expected to engage seriously on the issues on January 10. Some of my colleagues are interpreting your declaration of a dispute as a lack of equal seriousness on the AUT's part.
"I very much hope that is not the case, and regret that your threats of industrial action before negotiations even start may affect the atmosphere."
The AUT and sister union Natfhe have jointly demanded that employers spend at least a third of the additional income expected to be gained from the introduction of top-up tuition fees this year on staff pay, representing an across-the-board pay rise of more than 10 per cent.
Employers have indicated that such a commitment cannot be made because, although there will be "significant" investment in pay, fee income will vary dramatically between universities and the cash will not start flowing into university coffers until spring 2007.
An AUT spokesman said the union had asked for talks in November 2005, in time for a meeting of its executive committee that had been clearly scheduled for December 2. But he said the employers' failure to negotiate before the meeting left the executive with no option but to declare a dispute and prepare a members' ballot for industrial action.
"Our position has been consistent," the spokesman said. "We don't want to take industrial action, but we will ballot our members if a satisfactory offer is not made on January 10."
Dr Copland's letter also suggests that the AUT has "struck out on its own"
with a unilateral dispute declaration, despite plans to merge with Natfhe.
He asks Ms Hunt to confirm whether "the academic unions intend to proceed with a joint claim", given the different approach.
The AUT said there were no tactical differences, merely "a slight difference in process".