The vice-chancellor of Sussex University who is embroiled in a row with his staff has been chosen to head the employers' negotiating body in the crucial period following the higher education pay dispute.
Alasdair Smith succeeds Geoffrey Copland, vice-chancellor of Westminster University, as chair of the Universities and Colleges Employers'
Association. The association represents member universities in all discussions with higher education trade unions, including those on pay.
Professor Smith's appointment comes amid continuing controversy at Sussex over finances and planned job cuts, following the international outcry over the now-abandoned plan to close the chemistry department. He has faced two votes of no confidence since taking over in 1998.
One national union source said that Professor Smith's unpopularity among branch members at Sussex did not bode well for future national pay negotiations.
John Fry, president of Liverpool University's branch of the University and College Union, said in a letter to The Times Higher this week: "I learnt with great joy that Geoffrey Copland had stepped down as chair of Ucea.
Here was an acknowledgement of the need to rebuild damaged relationships with union staff. Then I find that the new chair is Alasdair Smith..."
Sally Hunt, joint general secretary of the University and College Union, said that Professor Smith, who becomes Ucea chair on August 1, is taking over at "a very challenging time".
Professor Smith said: "The pay dispute has been a difficult period for everyone in higher education, but we must all now look ahead and work together to build on lessons learnt."
Diana Warwick, the chief executive of Universities UK, said: "Alasdair brings with him considerable experience and many skills to fulfil this demanding role."