With no shift in the 6 per cent pay offer in sight, hopes of conciliation have been dashed. Phil Baty reports
The national pay dispute looks set to drag on to hit final exams in summer after even informal talks about talks between unions and employers ended in deadlock this week.
And, in a separate development, the prospect of a breakthrough receded further after university registrars insisted at their annual meeting that there must be no improvement on the pay offer of 6 per cent over two years, which unions have dismissed as "derisory".
After two hours of informal talks designed to break the deadlock paralysing official pay negotiations, the Universities and Colleges Employers'
Association confirmed it would not enter into any formal pay talks with lecturers' union Natfhe and the Association of University Teachers unless they suspended their campaign of industrial action over pay.
Ucea sources indicated that employers remained willing to accept a nominal suspension of the action - including during the Easter vacations, when there will be almost no union activity anyway - as a gesture of goodwill to allow formal talks to take place.
But the unions, which have been boycotting all student exams and assessments for the past month, refused to back down.
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the AUT, said: "We have always been clear that the action will continue until there is a substantive offer on the table."
The unions are demanding a 23 per cent rise over three years.
Ms Hunt said: "We are very willing to talk. We are at a very serious stage of the action, and institutions are beginning to feel it bite, so it is deeply frustrating that the employers will not talk. I'm not sure how far Ucea's uncompromising position reflects vice-chancellors' views. Many clearly want to see all parties round the table."
The sides did agree to another informal meeting on April 18. This may produce a way out of the deadlock and allow the unions to attend the next formal negotiating meeting scheduled for April 25.
But it is unlikely that the unions will be keen to suspend their industrial action for the April 25 meeting as this is just when they expect their boycott to hit preparations for the end-of-year and the finals exam period.
An AUT activist told The Times Higher that he believed Ucea was happy to drag the dispute out in a bid to break the resolve of union members taking action.
"I think they believe that staff, especially those facing having their pay docked, will cave in when it comes to the crunch, as they will not be willing to damage their students' prospects of progressing or graduating," he said.
"But, even if many members cave in, it just takes a handful of hardcore members in each university to cause real damage."
There is little prospect that universities will be able to improve substantially on their 6 per cent offer even if negotiations begin on April 25, according to registrars.
David Allen, registrar of Exeter University and chair of the Association of Heads of University Administration, said: "Institutions are already having to increase pay budgets by 7 to 8 per cent to implement local agreements over the new pay framework and for pensions."
* Further education lecturers have voted for a two-day strike next month in protest at an "insulting" 1.5 per cent pay offer by college employers. All six unions rejected the offer. The strike is planned for May 2 and 3.