Plans to pay "golden hellos" of up to £9,000 to new lecturers in shortage subjects from next year will not solve the recruitment crisis and could lead to an explosion in employment disputes, employers and lecturers' leaders warned this week.
Proposals by the Higher Education Funding Council for England to allocate £20 million over three years so that universities can boost recruitment have been criticised by vice-chancellors and trade unions.
Universities UK said the initiative was an insufficient response to a deep problem. Lecturers' union Natfhe said the scheme would be divisive and damaging.
Ivor Crewe, president elect of UUK, said: "While we are pleased the government has recognised the size of the recruitment problem and would welcome any additional money to help, we must be clear that this is just a short-term palliative when what is really required are sufficient resources to address the pay problem."
Andy Pike, national official at Natfhe, said: "This initiative will create a lot of ill feeling and is very likely to lead to an increase in tribunal claims."
Hefce is consulting on plans to give each university up to £200,000 a year to pay golden hellos in six areas highlighted by employers as suffering serious recruitment problems. The areas are mathematics, computing, education, engineering, business-related subjects, and clinical medicine and dentistry.
The payments will be worth £9,000 to individuals, with no less than £4,000 paid in the first year, a suggested £3,000 in the second and £2,000 in the third. They will be available only to those who have never taught in higher education before and who will do at least ten hours a week of teaching.
Natfhe said the supplements would mean new lecturers with no experience could earn £26,000 - more than lecturers who started on the basic £22,000 would earn after three or four years. The new recruits could be on £33,000 in their third year if they receive both their supplement and annual pay increment.
"Unless this is applied to all staff within a subject area, employers will have a serious problem objectively justifying any difference in pay between one member of staff and another," Mr Pike said.
The funding council plans to release a lump sum each year to each institution, depending on its size and subject balance. It would leave institutions free to administer their own schemes, guided by broad national criteria regarding eligibility and a code of practice.
Hefce will define the shortage areas using the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association's annual recruitment and retention survey, which found last year that one in five universities reported difficulty filling academic vacancies "most of the time" - a threefold increase since the survey began in 1998. Almost 60 per cent of institutions reported some difficulty in recruiting lecturers.
Some 65 universities reported recruitment problems in computing, 61 in business-related subjects such as accountancy and economics, 31 in engineering, and 16 in education. Most blamed serious pay gaps for the problem.
Jocelyn Prudence, chief executive of Ucea, said that basing the payments on nationally determined shortage areas, and predetermining how much should be paid, was too prescriptive.
"Problems are different at a local level, and employers would like more local flexibility," she said. "The amounts of money are relatively small and I don't think employers would want to pay them in the way the consultation paper envisages. As a stand-alone initiative, we don't think golden hellos are terribly helpful."
Alan Smithers, director of the centre for education and employment research at the University of Liverpool, said the scheme would be "at best, a sticking plaster". "Golden hellos have been introduced in schools to tackle shortages there, but they have not really had much of an impact," he said.
"What is important is the intrinsic features of a job and the rewards over an entire career."
Hefce said that its plans were under consultation until April 30, so it would not be appropriate to comment until it had finalised the details.