New Zealand's universities could be crippled by strike action when students return from the summer break in March.
The university staff union said enterprise bargaining with vice-chancellors had turned into a charade under the government's policy to freeze student tuition fees.
The Association of University Staff, which represents academic and general staff at seven of New Zealand's eight universities, said that contract negotiations were at an impasse, partly because universities could no longer increase student fees to compensate for pay rises.
The AUS is claiming 8 per cent for each of the next three years in the first pay round since the Labour-Alliance government froze student fees at 2000 levels. Offers ranging from 0 to 2 per cent a year have been met with a vote to strike when students return.
Only staff at the University of Auckland have settled a deal offering 3 per cent next year, part of which is to be paid as a bonus, while staff at the Auckland University of Technology are represented by the polytechnic staff union.
AUS national president Neville Blampied said that since the introduction of enterprise bargaining in 1989, staff had relied on tuition fee rises as the variable in negotiating pay increases.
"With the fees freeze, fees and staff pay increases have been completely decoupled and there is now no mechanism through which legitimately negotiated wage bargaining can influence either the government subsidies or the student fees," Dr Blampied said.
He said the 8 per cent claim represented a "modest catch-up" with inflation, as well as an effort to raise salaries towards comparability with Australia and a recognition of the productivity gains staff had made over the past decade.
Steve Maharey, associate minister responsible for tertiary education, acknowledged that New Zealand academic salaries had slipped in real terms, but maintained the issue was between the employer and the employee.
Mr Maharey said universities could decide what proportion of public subsidies they wished to spend on staff. He said that was the real issue for the negotiating table.
He noted that most universities received less than half their funding from the government and that the balance came from research funds as well as from international and domestic student fees.