University employers are set to place a "serious" pay offer on the negotiating table later this month in a bid to end industrial action by academics, writes Alan Thomson.
But the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association refused to be drawn on whether its offer, due to be made at the first formal pay negotiations on March 28, would be anywhere near union demands for rises of up to 23 per cent over three years.
Jocelyn Prudence, chief executive of Ucea, said that the offer would be formulated after the widest possible consultation with university employers.
"When we make an offer, it will be serious and considered," she said. "But I cannot comment on whether the unions will find it acceptable. They need to hear the dialogue and enter the process."
Both the Association of University Teachers and its sister union Natfhe have urged Ucea to make them an offer prior to the March 28 meeting.
The unions indicated that if the offer was reasonable, they would consider suspending their student assessment boycott and commence negotiations.
But the employers, who want lecturers' unions to call off their action until they at least see what is on the table, said that an earlier offer was impossible because this would pre-empt the pay claims still to come from other trade unions in higher education.
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the AUT, said: "Why the employers are so keen for the dispute to drag on until March 28 is beyond me. I hope they are serious about coming up with a decent pay offer."
The biggest of the support staff unions, Unison, will finalise its pay claim on behalf of its 60,000 higher education members only after its annual conference on March 23.
Jon Richards, Unison's senior national officer for the education sector, said: "We recognise that the academic unions have a claim. But there are differences in the approach and we have democratic processes we have to go through. We are seeking to move these more quickly but we will not be bounced into anything."
Meanwhile, the dispute turned nasty this week after a number of vice-chancellors indicated that they would dock pay for each day AUT and Natfhe members boycotted student exams and other assessments.
Roger Kline, head of universities at Natfhe, said that the union had written to the vice-chancellors of all post-92 universities warning them that there would be no return to normal working until docked pay was reimbursed, even if the dispute was over.