Mounting anger and frustration at the lack of progress in pay talks has brought staff at Victoria University of Wellington to the brink of what could be New Zealand's first academic strike.
The threat comes just as university students from all over the islands took to the streets in protest at tuition fee rises and their rising debts.
Members of the Association of University Staff, which represents both academic and general staff, have voted to hold a one-day strike at the end of the month with a further one-day strike the following month, unless they get an acceptable pay offer.
Academics are seeking an average 2.5 per cent rise while general staff want 5 per cent. Most staff have had no increase since July 1990, though there were adjustments for some academics last year - with an average increase of 0.4 per cent - when salary scales were restructured.
AUS branch president Peter Donelan said members were angry and frustrated there had been no progress in talks that started last August. Money initially budgeted for salary increases was written out by the time the budget was approved.
"That adds to the sense that staff are being done over," he said. "Staff must be the number one priority. We are the major resource. If they don't respond and create a good working environment with an appropriate level of salary, they (management) are hitting their major investment."
Members expected a settlement this year that would reflect their greater productivity, of which rising student to staff ratios was one measure, and inflation costs over the past five years.
Leslie Holborow, Victoria University vice chancellor, met AUS representatives last Tuesday. He did not put more money on the table. Additional costs as the budget was being finalised meant the provision for salary increases had to go, he said. There had been further, unexpected costs such as higher superannuation and accident compensation levies imposed by government.
Salaries for lecturers at Victoria range from NZ$38,000 (Pounds 16,000) to $50,000, for senior lecturers from NZ$52,600 to $67,500 with a promotion bar at $61,000; for associate-professors from $69,700 to $76,000 and for professors from $80,000 to $90,000. Most academics are the senior lecturer bar of $61,000.
Students, meanwhile, owe more than Pounds 1 billion in loans. Paul Williams, National University Students' Association president, said interest was mounting and students could expect to pay NZ$500 extra in fees for each of the next five years.
Women were hard hit by the loan scheme, because of their shorter average working life and lower pay than men, and some might never pay off their debts.
The cost of attending university for an average four-year qualification was more than NZ$40,000, which was putting many people off attending university. "That, too, is debt - an irreversible social deficit," Mr Williams said.