Lecturers have been told this week that if they reject reforms to the national pay negotiating process in a ballot next month, they will in effect be voting to reject national pay bargaining altogether.
The warning that vice-chancellors may quit national pay talks and set pay locally if reforms are not agreed has been issued by the Universities and Colleges Employers Association ahead of a ballot of University and College Union members.
In November, UCU negotiators agreed to a package of reforms with employers and other campus unions. The package stipulates that academics agree in future to negotiate pay at the same table as support staff. The reforms also set a new procedure for disputes, which narrows the window within which unions may take industrial action.
But in December, the UCU decided to put the changes to a ballot without recommending that members accept them.
Employers are understood to be furious that the UCU will not officially endorse the reforms, thereby risking the proposals' rejection by union members. A Ucea spokesman said: "There is considerable concern that the deal reached in good faith by all parties ... is unravelling."
Bill Wakeham, Ucea chairman, added: "We are concerned that staff in higher education institutions may misinterpret the significance of this ballot and the potentially serious consequences for the future of national bargaining. Ucea sees no scope for further negotiations."
A UCU insider, who asked not be named, said there were three points of view in the union. "There are those that don't want to risk national bargaining any further, and want to accept the reforms. There are those who are not interested in national bargaining and see this as an opportunity to open up local negotiations. The third group believes the proposals as they stand aren't good enough and voting them down will give UCU negotiators an opportunity to improve them."
The insider added that the issue of whether Ucea's refusal to negotiate further was a bluff was less important than the message that a "no" vote would send to employers. "If things break down at this point, there will be some employers who see it as an opportunity to move away from national bargaining."
The support staff unions believe there will be no further negotiation.
Jon Richards of Unison said: "We take seriously the Ucea message that the deal on the table is the final one.
"The danger is that a 'no' vote would divide the unions within higher education, hasten the end of national bargaining and presage a local free-for-all where a few staff in a few institutions might prosper while the majority lose out."
The UCU ballot will take place at the end of February. The most contentious issue is the negotiating timetable, which would narrow the window during which the union could take effective industrial action.
Carlo Morelli, president of the UCU branch at the University of Dundee, said: "Employers believe the UCU should abandon its right to take industrial action at the time of its choosing in order to continue with national bargaining. Can industrial relations genuinely be negotiated when employers insist on such preconditions?"
Steve Smith, 1994 Group chairman, said: "We are paying close attention to the discussions and will review our position ... once we know the ballot result."
Wendy Piatt, director-general of the Russell Group of research led universities, said: "The current package of proposals has been agreed by all stakeholders, and we do not believe that there is any room for further negotiations on the reform of (the pay negotiating structures). We are also concerned about the implications of this ballot for the future of national bargaining."
One vice-chancellor who wished to remain anonymous, said: "There are some v-cs who would like a 'no' vote as they would welcome the opportunity for local bargaining."