Universities have voted overwhelmingly to negotiate lecturers' terms and conditions of work locally, posing a threat to the Bett report's central recommendation.
Vice-chancellors are being asked to choose one of the four negotiating options proposed in a Universities and Colleges Employers Association consultation by a January 21 deadline.
The option favoured by UCEA's board proposes a two-tier approach where institutions can choose whether they want to be covered by national agreements on minimum terms and conditions, as Bett recommended.
The UCEA consultation document admits that this would amount to cherry-picking from Bett. But the document says: "It is difficult to see any other way of meeting the wishes of our subscribers."
An earlier UCEA consultation, which ended on December 3, showed that 64 per cent of vice-chancellors in pre-1992 and 52 per cent of those heading post 1992 universities said no to a national council negotiating minimum terms and conditions.
The second, less-favoured, option is that the UCEA tries to establish a national council with terms of reference that take account of the fact that many institutions want nothing to do with the Bett recommendations.
Bett's recommended national council would be left effectively functionless if stripped of powers to negotiate terms and conditions. The report says that pay should be dealt with by two sub-committees for academic and non-academic staff.
Any such decision by vice-chancellors would affect staff in old universities less because they have traditionally negotiated terms and conditions locally.
David Triesman, general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, said: "I can live with either options three or four. But it does seem that this national council may only have been for Christmas."
Many staff in the post-1992 sector are on nationally negotiated contracts - a hangover from the days when they were under local government control. Local negotiation would be difficult for these employees.
Tom Wilson, head of the universities section of lecturers' union Natfhe, said:
"There will be no tears shed if this part of the Bett report fails to get off the ground but with one important caveat. That is local negotiations have no impact on our national contract on pay and conditions. It all depends on the interpretation of terms and conditions."