A claim that cleaners, porters and plumbers could earn more than lecturers under the current pay offer has rocked the delicate final negotiations over higher education pay.
The Association of University Teachers, which remains vehemently opposed to the offer, said this week that, under the new system of job evaluation that will be introduced as part of the 7.7 per cent, two-year pay deal, lecturers at some institutions could be earning less than cleaners, porters and plumbers at others.
Employers this week said the figures were "nonsense", and other trade unions, most of which have already accepted the offer, also questioned their validity.
The AUT's figures are taken from a pilot system of job grading, known as the higher education role assessment - or Hera - scheme, which is likely to be used widely across the sector when universities move staff onto a single new pay spine from next year.
The AUT said that pilots in nine institutions showed that lecturers were rated more highly than technicians, secretaries, cleaners, plumbers and porters within each institution. But it said that discrepancies existed between institutions.
A spokesman for the AUT said that, while supporting the scheme in general, the union was concerned about how Hera would be interpreted by employers.
He said: "Not only could two lecturers working at different institutions be paid vastly different sums for the same job,, but cleaners, porters and plumbers could, in some cases, be given higher pay ratings than lecturers."
He said that it took at least six years of study to become a lecturer, and it would be "patently unfair" if such staff were paid less than colleagues with lower-level qualifications.
Christina McAnea, head of education at public service union Unison, whose members have accepted the package, disputed the interpretation of the scores.
She said: "Even if we are talking about someone who is, say, a catering manager with responsibility for people, budgets, hygiene, staff training and all sorts of other things, they are normally extremely unlikely to do better than a lecturer."
One senior source from a union that supports the offer said that it was concerned that the AUT was exaggerating the negative aspects of the offer to justify its opposition to members, who are likely to be called on to strike.
Andy Pike, national official in the universities department at lecturers'
union Natfhe, which is balloting on whether to keep negotiating on the offer or to move straight to a ballot for industrial action, also questioned the comparisons.
He said: "When you look at job evaluation outcomes... in every instance, academic roles within individual institutions are more highly valued by Hera than are non-academic roles... Comparing academic job evaluation scores in one institution with non-academic job scores in another is a pretty pointless exercise."
Peter Thorpe, adviser to the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, said: "These figures are nonsense. It would be extremely unusual for a porter to have a job that was of the same weight as a lecturer. We understand that the figures the AUT is referring to were false."
- Sunderland University was hit by a one-day strike on Tuesday as lecturers protested against compulsory redundancies. Between 30 and 40 posts have been lost already this year through a voluntary redundancy scheme but more cuts are needed to resolve a £3 million budget shortfall.