The Conservative Party could freeze pay in higher education if it wins the general election - and Labour and the Liberal Democrats will push for wage restraint.
The Universities and Colleges Employers Association says in a document issued following the start of pay talks with higher education unions that it is "entirely possible" that the Conservatives, if elected, could apply their pledge for a public-sector salary freeze in higher education via the funding councils. The freeze would apply to salaries of £18,000 and above for 2011-12.
David Willetts, Conservative shadow minister for universities, told Times Higher Education that his party "believes universities need to hold down their pay costs" and would "work with Hefce" on the "exact mechanisms" to achieve this.
He added: "Universities would find it very hard to explain to students and their families if costs were going up because of pay increases much greater than the rest of the economy was enjoying."
The five higher education unions opened the 2010-11 pay negotiations for staff on the national spine with a claim for a 4 per cent rise.
A Labour spokesman said of the party's pay policy: "The public rightly expect everyone delivering public services to tighten their belts.
"Of course, pay decisions in higher education are for individual institutions to make, but they will be expected to have regard to the pay restraint being shown across the wider public sector."
It's time for discipline
Ucea notes that the government wants a 1 per cent cap on new public-sector pay deals from 2010 to 2013.
In his grant letter to Hefce in December, Lord Mandelson said there was "a particular need to exercise discipline on pay in higher education, at all levels and in all areas".
Lib Dem policy on public-sector pay is to cap increases at £400 per person in 2011-12 and 2012-13.
Stephen Williams, Lib Dem universities spokesman, said: "We'd expect Hefce to recommend to universities that they apply that cap."
Higher education institutions are legally autonomous bodies, and in 2008-09 they reduced their reliance on funding-body grants to 35 per cent of their income, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency.
Mr Willetts said universities "count as independent, private bodies" and as such were not "strictly within the framework" of the party's commitment to freeze public-sector pay.
"But these are tough times," he said, pointing out that many businesses are unable to afford pay rises in today's economic climate.
Asked if controlling pay would conflict with Conservative principles of independence from state control, he said: "That is why we need to be very careful as we discuss the exact mechanisms. I do not wish to get into the position of micro-managing universities." He said he hoped that universities could handle settlements "responsibly" in their own negotiations.
'We're not in it together'
With a 0.5 per cent deal this year and a 0.25 per cent opening offer from Ucea for 2010-11, many in the academy will be chilled by the prospect of future freezes or caps.
A University and College Union spokesman highlighted the figures in this month's THE survey of vice-chancellors' pay. He said the fact that their pay and benefits packages had risen by nearly 11 per cent year on year had "damaged trust between staff and leaders and shown once again that, despite the rhetoric, we are not all 'in it together'".
Mike Robinson, Unite national education officer, said: "This is trying to close the stable door when vice-chancellors have already escaped through it."
Some argue that a run of low settlements could undo the progress that followed Sir Michael Bett's 1999 independent report, which called for substantial pay rises for academics to aid recruitment.
Jon Richards, Unison senior national education officer, said there was "little difference" between the Labour and Tory messages.
"They are battling hard to see which party can drive us back quicker to pre-Bett days, which will have knock-on effects on recruitment and retention, and damage our leading role in the world," he added.