The University and College Union was due to open two parallel ballots for industrial action – one on job security and pay and another on pensions – on 2 February.
But this week, the union wrote to universities asking them to “disregard” the notices of intention to ballot that it had sent earlier.
The original notices referred to the launch of the ballots on “2 February 2010” rather than 2011, and to the fact that the union had generated its list of members to be balloted on “24 January 2010”.
Asked whether the typos were to blame for the withdrawal of the notices, Michael MacNeil, the UCU’s head of higher education, said: “I can confirm that there will be a new start date for the ballots, with fresh notice being given to the institutions. The end dates will remain the same. It would be inappropriate to comment further.”
The ballots, which could lead to higher education’s first national strikes since 2006, are scheduled to close on 2 March.
Unions are keenly aware of the growing threat to industrial action posed by legal action from employers, often taken over technical details of the balloting process.
The UCU sent an email amending the errors, but it may have decided to withdraw the notices to avoid the risk of industrial action being derailed by legal fights over a minor detail.
The ballot on the 2010-11 national pay and conditions offer was sparked by the UCU’s unhappiness over the employers’ 0.4 per cent pay offer – below inflation for the second successive year – and their refusal to agree a national deal on avoiding redundancies.
The ballot on the Universities Superannuation Scheme came after the UCU rejected the employers’ plans to end final-salary pensions for new entrants, to introduce a pension age of 65 for all members and to link pension increases to a lower rate of inflation.
In its posters urging members to vote “yes” in the ballots, the UCU says that 40,000 jobs are at risk across the sector, that pensions are “under attack” and that the pay offer represents a real-terms cut.