Education secretary Estelle Morris has put her faith in the reformed university pay-bargaining system to prevent a staff recruitment and retention crisis in higher education and to close the pay gap between the sexes.
Ms Morris launched the national employers' and trade unions' Joint Negotiating Committee last week with a £300,000 donation towards its start-up costs. There was scepticism that the crisis could be prevented by new negotiating machinery alone.
Speaking at the JNC launch at the Trades Union Congress, Ms Morris said she hoped that the committee would address issues of equal pay for equal work and help tackle recruitment and retention problems. But she made it clear that there was no more public money, at least in the immediate term: "I haven't got millions of pounds for you today."
But millions of pounds were what the unions and the 1999 independent Bett Report into pay and conditions said was needed. The Association of University Teachers said the sector would need £490 million a year to increase pay to proper levels, with £350 million a year for equal pay alone, by 2003-04.
Ministers have been silent on the issue of whether they would continue with extra funding to address human resources problems beyond the £330 million to be spread over the three years to 2003-04, which has meant increases of little more than 1 per cent of the salary budgets in most large institutions.
Jocelyn Prudence, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association, said the £300,000 was a rare public acknowledgement by the government that academic pay was a real concern. The announcement raised hopes that more money would be made available in the future to help increase pay.
But a spokeswoman for the Department for Education and Skills said:
"University pay remains entirely a matter for university employers and the trade unions. We are offering a bit of practical assistance to the sector to help them get new machinery off the ground quickly. There will be no continuing government support, and the sector will anyway wish to fund its own pay machinery to maintain its independence and autonomy."
The JNC has united all higher education trade unions around a single pay-negotiating table with employers for the first time, clearing away one of the lasting vestiges of the binary divide between old and new universities. As well as annual pay deals, it will help determine the future working lives of university staff, from cleaners to professors, negotiating national lecturers' contracts, establishing job-evaluation schemes, creating a single pay spine and discussing performance-related pay.
A JNC working group, with a remit to create a single pay spine for academic staff by next August, held its first meeting this week. Unions hope to raise minimum pay levels and reduce the number of separate pay increments staff have to go through to reach the top salary for their job.