The Association of University Teachers claimed public support for its push for industrial action over pay this week as a strike ballot got under way.
A poll of 1,433 people conducted last week for the AUT, by polling company TNS, showed that 46 per cent of the public backed strike action. The polling question included the AUT's calculations that academic-related staff would lose £47,000 over 21 years and that some academics would lose £17,300 over nine years under the new structure.
The poll also found that 79 per cent of those questioned believed the starting salary for a lecturer should be at least £32,000 rather than the present salary of £23,000.
The Universities and Colleges Employers Association refuted the AUT's earnings figures. It said that staff were normally promoted after three years, not eight, as the AUT assumed, meaning staff would gain between £6,300 and £8,900 under the framework rather than lose out.
The AUT this week abandoned plans to ballot staff at the University of Central England, which is not covered by national pay bargaining. Doing so could have invalidated the ballot.
As ballot papers and information went out to members, it emerged that the national secretaries of Unison, Amicus and the Transport and General Workers Union have written to academic-related staff in pre-1992 universities stating that the AUT's information "appears to be based on assumptions, rather than actual evidence".
The AUT opposes job-evaluation for academic-related staff as proposed by employers. But Unison, Amicus and the T&G say in their letter that a job-evaluation scheme will ensure that salaries properly reflect the skills and responsibilities of jobs. The present system has resulted in "so many staff being underpaid and undervalued for the job they perform", the letter says.
A Unison spokesperson told The THES that it was the AUT's right to go ahead with the ballot, but said its fears over job evaluation were unfounded.
Lecturers' union Natfhe refused to comment on the AUT's ballot. It is continuing to hold its own talks with employers over pay.
An AUT spokesman said it was wrong to suggest that the only sticking point was the status of academic-related staff, which account for about 25 per cent of its 47,000 members.
He said that even if Ucea had backed down over plans for job evaluation and a single pay spine for all staff, the AUT would still have gone ahead with a ballot. The spokesman said that this was because the union did not accept the pay offer of 6.44 per cent over two years.
Jocelyn Prudence, chief executive of Ucea, said she was "very disappointed" but not surprised that the AUT had gone ahead with its ballot.
The National Union of Students has backed the AUT's campaign. Mandy Telford, its president, said the NUS recognised that industrial action by the AUT might be necessary to protect its members' interests.
Ms Telford said: "The NUS supports the AUT in its struggle against the employers' attacks on academic and academic-related staff pay and conditions.
"The AUT and the NUS recognise that there is a clear link between the government's proposals for differential top-up fees and the employers' move toward differential pay."
The NUS urged employers to return to the negotiating table to resolve the AUT's issues.
The AUT ballot will close on February 11. The result will be announced the next day.