The national academic pay system began to crumble this week as leading universities forged ahead with plans to set their own pay levels - despite the strike by the largest academic union.
The Association of University Teachers took to the picket lines in protest against proposed national pay reforms that it says will allow the "marketisation" of higher education, with academics' pay based on where they work and which subject they teach, instead of on nationally set levels.
But as lecturers went on strike, The Times Higher learnt that Bristol and Southampton universities were close to joining Imperial College London and Nottingham University in establishing their own individual pay systems.
Michael Sterling, head of the Russell Group of 19 elite universities, warned that more universities would follow suit and that the AUT would not halt the move towards variable, market-based academic pay. "If the strike drags on - and I don't see the employers willing to change their minds - then you will, de facto , get local pay deals," he said.
The AUT is protesting against a package from employers that offers a 6.44 per cent pay rise over two years - as long as academics accept the biggest shake-up of staff career structures for 40 years.
Under a new national pay framework, all university staff will be put on a single pay spine. There will be a massive university-by-university exercise to determine where different academic jobs will fit on the spine.
The AUT says that with lecturers' starting salaries currently £23,000 and senior lecturers earning a maximum of £35,000, the pay offer is too low. But, more fundamentally, the new structures will end national pay levels and allow institutions to set their own pay rates by choosing where to place staff on the spine.
In fact, key institutions are already using the disputed national model to create their own local pay levels.
Tony Strike, director of human resources at Southampton, said that the national dispute had barely affected cooperation with the local AUT on implementing a local pay system.
"There is very little sign of the national dispute here, and for practical purposes the academics who have been involved in implementing our project, while they have temporarily had to shed their AUT labels, are still working to our original time scales."
Mr Strike said that Southampton's system was based on the national framework under dispute but contained clear variations specific to the university's needs. He said it would be in place by August, with pay awards backdated to May this year.
"It's important to separate national politics from those universities that are making good progress outside of that national dynamic," Mr Strike added. He said that Southampton's system would be an improvement on the national framework and would reflect its market position.
Chris Cheesman, regional official at the AUT for the Southwest, said: "The arrangements at Southampton are based explicitly on the nationally agreed structure so we have literally got as far as we can go because there is no agreed national system yet."
Bristol also confirmed that it was making good progress on a pay system based on the national framework but "tailored to local circumstances", with cooperation from all local unions.
An AUT spokesperson said: "Our members are on strike because they want the protection of meaningful national bargaining rather than the sham being offered by the employers. Any progress made locally has been wasted because of the employers' refusal to move on the AUT's key demands."
Professor Sterling, who is vice-chancellor of Birmingham University, said:
"If you are going to charge more in the way of tuition fees, then you have to deliver quality and quality revolves around having the best staff and the best staff cost more than the worst staff, so it's necessary to have a pay difference."
He said it was inevitable that as well as different salary levels for the same job at different universities, there would be differentials between lecturers in different subject areas, depending on market forces.
"Inevitably a lecturer in engineering is going to command a different salary than a lecturer in history, even within the same university," he said.
Lecturers' union Natfhe was due to decide whether or not to recommend a deal to its members this week. It has warned that without agreement a "local free-for-all" will be almost inevitable.