Academic trade unions are squaring up for an epic pay battle as they come together to fight for a 28 per cent increase in the face of a threatened collapse of national pay bargaining.
The three academic trade unions, representing more than 140,000 staff, agreed their claim for 28 per cent over three years this week. They will present it to employers this month. But the unions believe that their biggest fight could be with vice-chancellors seeking to ignore any national deal and set their own pay levels, bolstered by a government determined to open higher education to the free market.
"This is shaping up to be the most interesting and biggest battle. "The lines are drawn," said Tom Wilson, head of universities at lecturers' union Natfhe.
The unions - Natfhe, the Association of University Teachers and the Educational Institute of Scotland, said that the 28 per cent demand represented a "14 per cent catch-up, and 14 per cent keep-up", and was a pragmatic and realistic step towards making up a 40 per cent shortfall that has occurred in academic pay over the past 20 years.
The unions said they were optimistic of a reasonable settlement by the August 1 pay anniversary because the government had already confirmed one of the most generous higher education funding settlements ever for the next three years to 2006.
"We know the money is there," said AUT president Jane McAdoo at the union's winter council last week.
But vice-chancellors warned that there was no money for across-the-board increases. Roderick Floud, president of Universities UK, said: "We are concerned that recurrent funding for teaching is inadequate. In addition, too many of the funds are tied to specific purposes and some are too small to achieve the improvements required."
The only money specifically set aside for staff pay next year is clearly earmarked to be highly differentiated and locally determined. While overall teaching funding is barely increased, the settlement includes the £167 million over two years to help the recruitment and retention of staff with special "market supplements", golden hellos and performance-related pay.
The concentration of research funding meant that there were dramatic variations in funding settlements for this year, with some institutions receiving 10 per cent more, while others faced cuts.
Some vice-chancellors said that this, combined with the introduction of differential tuition fees in 2006, as well as moves in last week's budget to recognise the need for regional differences in public sector pay, was pushing the sector inexorably towards local deals.
Peter Knight, vice-chancellor of the University of Central England, the only university so far to opt out of national bargaining and set pay locally, said: "With the differential funding coming in now, plus the arrival of top-up fees in 2006, institutions are being put in a very different positions in terms of their ability to pay their staff."
He said vice-chancellors were reluctant to take the plunge into local pay but "many are surreptitiously already moving to local pay".
Vice-chancellors increasingly wanted more local flexibility, he said, and staff in the top institutions would press for local pay when they realised they could get far more than the national salary.
"By and large, trade unions could do better for their members with local rates," Professor Knight said.
Malcolm Keight, assistant general secretary of the AUT, said there would be "absolute chaos" and "a tremendous waste of resources and repetition of bureaucracy" if each institution conducted its own salary surveys and set its own job grading structures for local pay.
Mr Wilson said: "If we break up national pay bargaining, it will be the final blow to any notion of a common currency in UK university awards."
Peter Thorpe, a director of the Universities and Colleges Employers'
Association, said: "The employers' objective has always been to retain national bargaining, but with structures within a national framework that allow flexibility to meet individual institutions' particular circumstances."