Lecturers' union leaders were celebrating a breakthrough this week in efforts to resolve their dispute with employers over pay and conditions.
But the celebrations looked like being short-lived, as employers immediately refused to accept deadlines for further progress demanded by the Association of University Teachers.
A meeting on Monday between representatives of the Association of University Teachers, Natfhe, Unison, the technicians' union MSF, and the Universities and Colleges Employers Association brought agreement between all parties on a joint submission and some joint lobbying on the Bett recommendations on pay. They also agreed to set up working groups to tackle two key issues - equal pay opportunities for women and casualisation.
Employers had called for the meeting to see how much support other unions have for the AUT's approach to negotiations.
Afterwards, AUT general secretary David Triesman said there was "not a cigarette paper" between the unions, and he called on employers to seek progress through the working groups by the end of November, two weeks before the AUT's rescheduled winter council meeting.
The AUT wants "an eradication of all pay differentials" between men and women and ethnic groups and the number of fixed-term contracts to be halved by the end of next year.
Although the union is still not accepting UCEA's imposed pay offer of 3.5 per cent, Malcolm Keight, AUT assistant general secretary, said agreements on equal pay and casualisation should be considered as part of a negotiated "package".
But Mr Triesman warned: "If these issues are not resolved, then all issues remain live. Effectively, it would be back to the drawing board. If the employers do not come back with a positive view, it is hard to see how we can talk about anything on the Bett recommendations."
Peter Humphreys, chief executive of the UCEA, described Monday's meeting as "generally positive" and confirmed the willingness of employers to establish the working parties "without prejudice".
He was adamant, however, that no timescale had been agreed for the working parties to come up with options for progress. "These are serious and complex issues that have been around the sector for some time and will need careful consideration," he said.
The AUT will bring to the table fresh evidence that it has gathered on the pay differentials between male and female lecturers and ethnic minorities.
Mr Triesman said he was encouraged by recent pledges from the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals' new president, Howard Newby, to deal urgently with the question of equal pay opportunities. "The CVCP cannot afford to be indifferent over these issues," he said.