Students could be prevented from graduating this summer because of industrial action across the new university sector.
In advance of a final "make or break" two-day intensive meeting with employers early next week, lecturers' union Natfhe said that it had made only limited headway following meetings in March.
The higher education unions, which suspended a joint campaign of action short of a strike last month to return to the negotiating table, always promised that action would be resumed and intensified to include strikes unless tangible improvements to the 3 per cent pay offer had been made by the end of March.
"Pay is the key issue," Natfhe has told its members in a special bulletin. The union said that only "substantial progress" before its higher education conference on March 31 could prevent a resumption of industrial action.
The action earlier this year included a campaign of non-marking by Natfhe, which denied thousands of students their exam results, including nurses and teachers who were due to take up professional posts. They have promised that resumption will cause further disruption and is likely to prevent students from graduating in the summer.
All other higher education unions, except the Association of University Teachers, have a mandate for action.
Natfhe said that the Universities and Colleges Employers Association had refused to increase this year's 3 per cent offer. But it has agreed to look at making "marginal" improvements that could allow increases at the bottom of the scale and improvements to researchers' pay. The unions are also hopeful that by considering this year's offer alongside next year's as part of a two-year package, "back-door" improvements to this year's offer could be made.
Natfhe said that the recent funding council allocations to institutions showed an average increase of 4.1 per cent, proving that an improvement to the 3 per cent pay offer was easily affordable.
Natfhe said that slow progress has been made on plans for negotiating machinery proposed by the Bett report into pay and conditions, largely because of in-fighting among unions.
As The THES reported earlier this month, the AUT and Unison have clashed over how academic-related staff will fit into the national council for pay negotiating. The AUT wants its academic-related members to join its mainstream membership in the academic council. Other unions want them to unite in the non-academic council.