Key negotiators for the Association of University Teachers missed the crucial talks on this year's landmark pay offer because they were not prepared to talk through the night as agreed, employers said this week.
As the AUT told its 46,000 members to prepare for strikes if the "unacceptable" offer was not improved, it emerged that the union had not been not fully represented at the negotiations on the final night of talks in July, even though the biggest shake-up of academics' jobs for more than 40 years was at stake.
"The AUT's general secretary and all its elected members walked out of the most important negotiations of the AUT's experience," said a senior source for the employers. "We were utterly astonished and very pissed off."
The AUT team blamed poor administration by the Joint National Committee for Higher Education Staff (JNCHES) and criticised the employers for continuing the talks until 3.30am.
The offer was made after 28 hours of talks in a London hotel on July 17-18.
In return for a 7.7 per cent increase over two years, employers asked unions to accept a new framework agreement for modernising pay structures.
Talks continued until 3.30am on Saturday, July 19. It is understood that AUT general secretary Sally Hunt, who has a young child, and president Jane McAdoo left hours before the end. The last AUT negotiator to leave, assistant general secretary Malcolm Keight, said he stayed until 2.45am, but he did not have a mandate to make decisions alone.
In a letter circulated to the employers' negotiating team, written in August, Ms McAdoo said the meetings had been "shambolic".
She wrote: "Many of us gave advance notice that we had to leave by 17.00 on the 18thI Despite this, we had an endless series of sub-meetings, of pauses, reiterations and promises of resumption in 30 minutes, leading to an atmosphere that was far from conducive to good decision-making. To continue such a key meeting until 3.30am on Saturday morning was to treat those involved with a disdain that said much about the seriousness with which the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association approaches family-friendly policies."
But the employers and the other trade unions said all parties, including the AUT, had agreed to keep going through the night.
On September 9, Geoffrey Copland, vice-chancellor of Westminster University and UCEA board chair, replied to Ms McAdoo: "I was very surprised to receive your comment about the timing of the meetings. This was explicitly and repeatedly discussed by the joint officers' group (of unions and employers)I it was collectively agreed that all parties should identify core teams, with decision-making ability, to stay beyond 5pm for as long as necessaryI "In the event all other parties had made arrangements to stay and contribute authoritatively until the end of the negotiations. We are extremely disappointed that (the) AUT seems not to have made similar plans for such an important occasion."
A senior source for one of the other unions confirmed that all parties had agreed to stay "to the bitter end" and blamed problems with the AUT's internal communications.
Lecturers' union Natfhe declined to comment. Transport and General Workers' Union higher education chief Chris Kaufman, said: "It's a storm in a teacup."
In her letter to the employers, Ms McAdoo also attacked the independence of JNCHES chair Mary Stacey, who, she claimed, was "pushing the objectives of the management side".
Ms Stacey, a former employment lawyer, rebutted the criticisms, saying she had made it explicit in her opening remarks on July 17 that the talks were likely to continue beyond 5pm the next day.
Ms Hunt said: "When the employers were unable to satisfy our serious concerns and questions relating to members pay progression and grades, it was clear no agreement was likely."
Although the union would not confirm when the AUT team left the talks, a spokesperson said: "The AUT had a core team present until the end of the debate on the offer. The fact is that no AUT negotiators could have signed off something like that on behalf of the whole union without deferring it to our national executive committee."