A summer of industrial action that could prevent university students from graduating is looming as unions this week rejected a 3.3 per cent pay rise.
Lecturers' union Natfhe, which already has a mandate for strikes, accused the Universities and Colleges Employers Association of negotiating in bad faith, offering a "plainly inadequate" rise for next year. Natfhe said the UCEA had failed to improve even marginally this year's 3 per cent offer despite the union's decision to suspend industrial action for the talks.
The Association of University Teachers, hitherto the only higher education union to avoid industrial action this year, said that action would be on the agenda for its conference in May unless the UCEA improved its offer at a last ditch meeting on May 10.
Natfhe's head of universities, Tom Wilson, said that members' patience was running out. He said that at a special conference last week the union only narrowly agreed not to resume and escalate action immediately.
Natfhe will wait to see what is offered on May 10 - not the first date for talks that has been billed as the last chance for agreement.
Natfhe's action earlier in the year included a campaign of non-marking and boycotts of exam boards.
Mr Wilson said a resumption would hit students' final exams in summer and that the action would be escalated to include a series of strikes.
Natfhe and the AUT have also threatened to pull out of joint union talks on restructuring national pay negotiating machinery recommended in the 1998 Bett report unless there is real progress on pay issues.
Mr Wilson refused to be drawn on the kind of offer Natfhe members would accept, but he pointed out that the sector received an average 4.1 per cent funding increase from the funding councils earlier this year.
He said: "In every other year the level of the funding council increase has been the main determinant of the pay offer. Why not this year?" The unions said the average public sector pay increase was 3.8 per cent, with school teachers offered 3.7 per cent plus £2,000 in performance-related pay.
Anger was reflected in a dramatic shift of position by the AUT. Despite avoiding action so far this year, after an unsuccessful campaign last year, the AUT warned it could take action.
AUT general secretary David Triesman said: "Staff have shown the patience of saints waiting for a serious pay offer... unless there is a significant change in the derisory sum currently on offer, it is inevitable that there will be a call for stronger action."
The AUT will hold its annual conference on May 16.
- The Association of Teachers and Lecturers has demanded financial parity between college lecturers and school teachers. At its 2001 annual conference, the ATL said that lecturers' pay lags behind schoolteachers' pay by between 10 and 35 per cent.