The sky could be the limit for top academics under "explosive" pay recommendations by the Bett committee.
Sources close to the independent review of higher education, chaired by Sir Michael Bett, said that the report, due within weeks, may recommend "taking the lid off" pay for top-rated academics, whose pay is held back only by cash shortage. This could mean certain high-flying academics commanding salaries far in excess of national academic pay scales.
The proposal, which echoes the free-market position at universities in the United States, is understood to be just one of a number of pay recommendations that, if implemented, could cost higher education dear. Employers and trade unions, both of which are represented on the committee, agree that the government must pick up the bill.
The Bett source said: "This report is explosive in that, if we were to restructure from top to bottom, how would we deal with it and pay for it? The jury is still out on whether there will be extra government cash. But pay issues are coming down the track towards employers. We have to persuade everyone in the sector that Bett is something worth fighting for. If we do not seize the moment, then the time will be gone."
Another source said: "It is a worry for employers that they will have to pick up the bill. There are two risks if the government walks away from this in the longer term. First, it will lead to employee unrest and demotivation. Second, it may lead to a wave of planned litigation against universities, the like of which has never been seen."
The most obvious scope for employee litigation is in the area of equal pay for equal value. The report will highlight glaring inequalities in pay between men and women in universities. Female academics and other staff, long aware of such inequalities, could use the report as evidence to back claims against institutions under existing laws such as the Sex Discrimination Act. Sources have confirmed that it could cost the higher education sector about Pounds 400 million a year to pay women fairly.
It is understood that the report will recommend a range of pay rises covering different staff groupings. But it is thought to go further than recommending mere percentage rises. As the first detailed examination of staffing structures in a higher education sector that has undergone massive expansion and incorporates many different types of institutions, it is thought to recommend a radical reappraisal of structures.
Bett committee sources said that given the scale of the likely changes it is important that higher education employees do not expect results immediately, particularly any firm commitment from the government on cash. They anticipated prolonged negotiations with government that could take two to three years to bear fruit.
"We are talking about very big problems that will need large amounts of money to solve them. But while it may take time to solve the overarching problems, there are some issues, such as gender discrimination, that require action immediately. It would be irresponsible if government thought these could be set right simply within the sector," a source said.
Soapbox, page 20