The higher education unions have lodged a new pay claim to keep wages in line with inflation as the future of national bargaining comes under scrutiny.
In their joint claim for 2011-12, the sector's five unions call for a national pay increase in line with retail prices index inflation, which currently stands at 5.3 per cent.
They want "an increase on all pay points to ensure there is no real-terms pay cut, or a lump sum, whichever is the greater, for the low paid".
But the national bargaining system and pay spine is under pressure as universities face a future of differing income levels caused by variations in tuition fees and the abolition of the teaching grant for arts, humanities and social science subjects.
Local pay talks might produce winners among some academics at research-intensive universities, but produce losers elsewhere in the sector.
A meeting of Durham University's executive committee on 22 February heard that "there was increasing discussion at a national level about multi-employer negotiation", according to the minutes.
To prepare for the academic year 2012-13 - when higher fees will be introduced - Durham will conduct "an appraisal of the available options for future negotiations on pay".
Any "advantages around possible local bargaining in the future would be related to increasing competitiveness, not controlling costs, and investment would be necessary in the infrastructure to conduct such local negotiations", the minutes note.
Alison Wolf, Sir Roy Griffiths professor of public sector management at King's College London, argued in a pamphlet published last year that national bargaining left universities with "an inability to respond flexibly to sudden cuts in income" and reduced competition between institutions.
She said this week that national bargaining was "unsustainable" in the long term, but warned that in the short term, universities might avoid facing that by using "more and more temporary staff, which protects the pay and benefits of permanent staff while lowering the overall wage bill".
Michael MacNeil, the University and College Union's head of higher education, said: "We know that increasing competition between institutions will impact on the labour markets within the sector and this is...leading to some employers reappraising how they want to deal with pay and other contractual issues."
He highlighted the UCU's "clear policy position in support of national bargaining".
Jon Richards, Unison's senior national education officer, said that local bargaining would require universities to spend money on training their human resources staff to negotiate, as well as incurring costs in staff time. "It is not a cheap option," he added.
Paul Curran, vice-chancellor of City University London and a Universities and Colleges Employers Association board member, said that given the low pay settlements in the past two years, neither struggling nor successful institutions would push to abandon national bargaining. "Vice-chancellors have enough to deal with at the moment without the upset that would be caused by moving out of the national scheme," he said.