Lecturers have been offered a pay rise of 7.7 per cent over two years if they accept the biggest shake-up in their career structures for 40 years.
After more then 28 hours of intensive talks last week, the employers offered 3.44 per cent for 2003-04 and a near-inflation 3 per cent for 2004-05, with an additional 1.1 per cent when universities move individually on to the new national pay spine between 2004 and 2006.
The offer falls way short of the 28 per cent demanded by unions, and depends on academics accepting unpopular measures such as performance-related pay, new appraisals, market-based pay supplements for shortage subjects and a formal "evaluation" of their jobs.
The Association of University Teachers and lecturers' union Natfhe were pleased that they had seen off some elements of proposed pay structures, such as unchecked local arrangements and blocks to automatic promotion. But they sounded caution on the offer this week.
"This is a very complex package - not all of which is of benefit to our members," said an AUT spokesman. Natfhe said that next year's 3 per cent rise could amount to a cut if inflation increased.
Central to the deal is a new "framework agreement for the modernisation of pay structures" under which all staff in old and new universities, from porters to professors, transfer to a common pay spine, which will include five academic grades. Universities will transfer staff to the new grades after undertaking a job-evaluation exercise.
Unions are delighted that the number of annual pay increments between some grades has been reduced to speed the ascent up the career ladder, but senior lecturers will still have to climb up nine increments to reach the top of their grade.
There is concern that at the top of each grade a number of pay increments will depend on "contribution" - a form of performance-related pay where salary increases depend on achievements rather than length of service. The framework ushers in differential pay for staff in different subject areas, depending on market conditions, and makes provision for "regular development reviews of staff - with a view to facilitating the improvement of performance".
The structures will provide significant rises for some staff. Starting salaries for lecturers will rise from £22,191 to almost £25,000 after 2004. With contribution points, salaries for standard lecturers could reach £30,000.
Top awards for principal lecturers will increase from £40,000 to a maximum of £46,296. But lecturers in the middle of the scale are left with more modest increases.
The best increases are reserved for the lowest-paid manual staff, who will receive almost 13 per cent over the two years. Public sector union Unison, with almost 60,000 members in universities, has recommended its members approve the deal.
The executive committees of the two lecturers' unions will meet next week to decide whether to advise members to accept, but academics will not be expected to vote on the proposals until autumn, after consultation.
Geoffrey Copland, chair of the board of the University and Colleges Employers Association, said: "The modernisation of pay structures is long overdue. Our new framework agreement will provide benefits for the whole sector."
Jocelyn Prudence, chief executive of Ucea, warned that the pay deal would be very hard for universities to afford. There are fears that Scotland will face a multimillion pound shortfall in meeting it. The higher education white paper earmarked funds for modernising pay structures in England and Wales, but no such funds have been set aside in Scotland.
The proposed framework agreement includes:
* New pay structures based on job evaluation, with protection of present salary levels and progression expections
* A model pay structure for universities' use, with the possibility for them to negotiate variants or alternatives locally
* Pay progression based partly on length of service and partly on contribution
* Harmonisation of working hours for manual staff