Strike action by the Association of University Teachers next week could be illegal, employers have argued, writes Phil Baty.
The Universities and Colleges Employers' Association told The Times Higher this week that the decision by the AUT to hold a series of pay strikes concurrently with protests against top-up fees by the National Union of Students could constitute unlawful "secondary action".
"The AUT balloted its members on industrial action about pay, not about tuition fees. Strike or other action on the issue of tuition fees would thus be unlawful," said Peter Thorpe, senior adviser to Ucea.
Mr Thorpe said that employers would watch closely for breaches of the law during the joint industrial action next week.
In a press release last week, the NUS said the AUT's ballot "sends a clear message to the government. Lecturers and students - key stakeholders in the higher education funding debate - vehemently oppose plans for variable top-up fees and variable pay".
A spokesman for the Department for Education and Skills said: "It is wrong and opportunistic to link the AUT pay dispute to the [higher education] bill. Pay remains a matter for higher education institutions and unions."
An AUT spokesperson said: "For the AUT, this is an entirely distinct dispute from variable top-up fees. The employers have it within their power to ensure that there is no strike next week if they come up with an offer that meets the aspirations of AUT members.
"Ucea would be better off concentrating on settling the dispute rather than seeking to score cheap political points."
Some 67 per cent of AUT members, on a turn-out of 54 per cent, voted against the 6.44 per cent two-year pay package, which comes with the biggest shake-up of academic career structures for 40 years, in favour of strike action.
Just over 81 per cent voted in favour of action short of a strike, which will include a boycott of exam marking.
The AUT will hold a week of strikes with the NUS from February 23, starting with disruption in Wales, followed by action in England on February 24 and a UK-wide strike on February 25.