Staff at Southampton University are set to be the first employees to move to the new national pay structure hammered out by unions and employers earlier this year.
The university believes its swift action has given it a clear competitive edge in the job market in the run-up to the 2008 research assessment exercise.
Tony Strike, director of human resources, said: "We have our eye very clearly on the 2008 RAE. We have worked within the national framework and with unions to devise a structure that will bring about substantial improvements in pay."
Southampton also has an eye on top earners, extending the pay spine up to £53,000 a year and paying market rates for professors. It has also backdated its new pay structure to May of this year.
In contrast, more than half of universities told the University and Colleges Employers Association in June that they would not be implementing the framework until the final deadline of August 2006, with 41 per cent implementing it in August 2005.
But Jocelyn Prudence, chief executive of the Ucea, said: "This was an early survey and we anticipate more universities bringing implementation forward as those out in front, such as Southampton, provide models." Ucea is now updating the survey.
While the Association of University Teachers has recommended the Southampton structure to its members, whom it is now balloting, there is one outstanding issue that has been excluded from the deal put to staff but that is still subject to negotiation.
Malcolm Keight, the AUT's assistant general secretary, said: "The no-detriment clause hammered out by the unions and employers means that Southampton cannot put current staff on lower levels of pay.
"But they had plans to set pay levels for some new staff two points lower than at present. These plans have not gone away."
Mr Strike said: "Our new pay scale is obviously better than the current one and we do not believe there to be any detriment. This is a minor technical issue that we hope to resolve with the unions by August 2005."
Two colleges of higher education - the College of St Mark and St John, Plymouth, and University College, Worcester, have also reached agreement with staff on a new pay structure.
Imperial College London modernised its pay last year, well in advance of the national agreement, boosting salaries for professors and more senior lecturers.
The national framework is designed to ensure greater pay equality and transparency through job evaluation exercises, detailing staff roles. All staff are then placed on grades on a national pay spine.
The Ucea survey found that 86 per cent of institutions had yet to decide on the design of their new grading structure, but two-thirds of these intended to make a decision before the end of this academic year.
Five of the 33 institutions that were able to say something about their grading plans said that they would not be using the model laid out in Appendix C of the framework and favoured by unions - particularly lecturers' union Natfhe.
The union has warned that failure to comply with Appendix C would trigger a dispute. In its own survey published two weeks ago it said that 70 per cent of new universities were using the appendix as the basis for negotiations.