Expectations that this year's pay reforms will drive up salaries across the sector have been raised as the Open University agreed a deal that will increase starting salaries by 15 per cent.
Manchester, the UK's newest and largest university, is also expected to agree a pay deal next week that will improve on the Association of University Teachers' preferred grading structure. Salaries at the top of the scale are expected to rise considerably.
The deals are being hailed by the AUT as benchmarks that could raise the bar for all universities.
A modernised framework for pay and careers was agreed in March after years of negotiations. The reforms move all staff, from porters to professors in old and new universities, to a single pay spine and introduce unprecedented flexibility to determine pay locally under a national framework.
The OU has abandoned the pay points at the bottom of the spine and has agreed a scheme that will see starting salaries for lecturers leap 15 per cent. The deal will be backdated to August 1, 2004.
Malcolm Keight, AUT deputy general secretary, said: "The OU has one of the AUT's largest local associations and, because of the nature of the institution, members work in all parts of the UK."
But Philip Marsh, the OU's director of human resources, insisted: "This deal is for our 4,500 full-time staff only. We are yet to negotiate on behalf of our 7,500 associate lecturers."
Associate lecturers are the OU's local tutors who deliver courses on a part-time basis throughout the UK.
The OU deal is similar to one hammered out at Loughborough University this year. That deal also phased out the lowest points of the pay spine, but it was not backdated.
OU lecturers will be transferred to the pay spine after job evaluations. Mr Marsh said: "This deal will cost the OU about £4 million - and that is excluding what will happen with associate lecturers. Obviously, any shift to a new pay scheme has an inflationary effect."
Jocelyn Prudence, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association, said she was pleased that the direct benefits to staff of the pay modernisation framework were being recognised.
Commenting on the Manchester deal, Brian Everett, assistant general secretary at the AUT regional office, said: "We are hopeful the Manchester deal will be announced next week. We believe other universities will look at it and see what good industrial relations can produce. The deal is expected to be highly competitive and will put the university in a strong position to attract staff."
Mr Everett said the deal could mean senior lecturers earning up to Pounds 50,000 with the addition of contribution points.
The university declined to comment this week. It is yet to complete deals with other unions, but it is hopeful that it can make an announcement next week.
Earlier this year, Southampton University established a new structure, extending the pay spine to £53,000.
Mr Marsh said: "We will still be able to match salaries at the top end through market supplements. Our pay deal will help our research base, as it will allow us to recruit good researchers."
- Nottingham University, which is still being boycotted by the AUT over what the union claims is a breach of the national pay and grading framework, has posted a notice on its website saying that "informal discussions" have been taking place with the union.