Higher education faced a long and increasingly bitter battle over pay this week as unions and employers hit deadlock over negotiations.
Geoffrey Copland, chairman of the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association and vice-chancellor of Westminster University, wrote to the unions to say there could be no talks until they halted their industrial action.
The Association of University Teachers and Natfhe refused to do so and claimed that they had been barred from the first official negotiating meeting with employers, scheduled for March 28. Employers, represented by Ucea, had originally said they would make a pay offer at the meeting.
Jocelyn Prudence, Ucea's chief executive, told The Times Higher : "Suspending industrial action is a necessary gesture of goodwill as far as we are concerned. This will remain the position."
Ms Prudence said that any action should be suspended for the duration of the pay talks. With a second meeting scheduled for April 25 and perhaps another after that, this would mean halting industrial action for at least a month. But Ms Prudence hinted that employers were ready to talk about the period of suspension.
The move has infuriated the unions, which said it was likely to harden the resolve of members.
Sally Hunt, AUT general secretary, said: "I'm genuinely shocked. The invitation to the meeting made no mention of this condition, and now, with four days to go, they put this block in. Members will draw their own conclusions, and employers will have to live with the consequences of their actions."
Roger Kline, head of Natfhe's universities department, said the employers were playing for time in the hope that the assessment boycott could be suspended for the crucial post-Easter examinations and marking period.
He said: "We are not going to suspend our action. If the employers have a serious offer to make, let them announce it. If anything, this desperate tactic shows that our boycott is beginning to bite."
Ms Prudence refused to be drawn on the pay offer. But she said many vice-chancellors had indicated that they would prefer a two-year deal. The unions have asked for a rise of up to 23 per cent over three years.
Ms Prudence said employers would make a final offer after receiving pay claims from other higher education unions such as Unison, the T&G and the GMB.
Jon Richards, Unison's senior national officer for the education sector, said that in the light of Ucea's stance towards the academic unions, Unison would have to think again about attending next Tuesday's meeting.