Changes in the tuition fees regime could heap pressure on staff wages and put national pay bargaining under "huge strain", according to the new chair of the university employers' group.
Paul Curran, vice-chancellor of City University London, last week took up the role at the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, which represents 151 institutions in national pay bargaining.
At present, there is a national pay scale for most higher education staff that covers everyone from cleaners to senior lecturers, with nationwide negotiations between Ucea and the sector's five unions determining annual pay rises.
But some elite universities with high numbers of AAB students - set to increase their income under the modified system - have argued that they can award staff bigger pay rises by setting wages locally.
Professor Curran said of the fees regime: "Some institutions will be able to pay more, some won't...Undoubtedly, staff costs will be high on the list of things to review if there is a downturn in income."
He added that institutions facing such reductions "would find it more difficult to promote the case for large salary increases...At the moment, the membership is indicating it would like to stay within the current system (of national bargaining). But there are these strains - they are going to be huge."
Professor Curran said that those deciding to leave national bargaining might "opt out in the short term or the long term and then come back in - I don't see that as a problem as it is the current arrangement".
He praised the work of his predecessor as Ucea chair, Keith Burnett, vice-chancellor of the University of Sheffield, and added that he was "looking forward to working with the unions".
The University and College Union has held an online consultative ballot on Ucea's offer of a £150 pay rise for 2011-12.
Professor Curran put recent below-inflation awards in the context of "the position in the country as it goes through a painful period of readjustment", adding that pay restraint was "happening across all professions".
The UCU has also balloted for industrial action over the Universities Superannuation Scheme, set to be split between current members remaining on final-salary pensions and future members on a lower-value career-average scheme.
"The only way around that was for everybody to have a final-salary scheme - which wasn't affordable - or for everybody to lose the final-salary scheme - which wouldn't have been politically acceptable," Professor Curran said.
Asked if he meant "politically unacceptable" for the UCU, he said: "Yes, and for the people who currently have USS pensions to lose their final-salary pension scheme."
He added that a career-average scheme for all had been "one of the early proposals" for reform.