The national pay bargaining system for academics has, in effect, collapsed into a local free-for-all, members of the Association of University Teachers will hear next week.
The fragmentation of salary negotiations threatens not only to "seriously weaken" the campus-based trade unions but also to undermine the very notion of higher education as a national public service, the AUT's annual council will be told.
A series of strongly worded motions to be put to the union's annual council meeting in Eastbourne warns that last year's historic new framework agreement on pay modernisation has forced union branches to negotiate local pay deals university by university.
"Council believes that a move away from national bargaining is a weapon in the hands of the employers, undermines the concept of a national public service and creates further pressure for the commercialisation of higher education," declares a motion from the Liverpool branch of the AUT, backed by the executive.
It adds: "Council instructs the executive to take all possible steps to secure a return to national bargaining at the earliest opportunity."
The framework agreement, accepted by all higher education unions last year, represented the biggest shake-up of academic careers for 40 years. It was designed to ensure greater equality and transparency for staff pay.
The reforms create a single national pay spine by 2006, for all staff in old and new universities.
Job evaluations are being carried out to define the roles and responsibilities of all staff, determining where they will be placed on the spine.
But while it is a countrywide agreement for setting pay grades, the framework gives unprecedented flexibility to individual universities.
Institutions can carry out their own job evaluation exercises, decide where on the pay spine they place staff groups, introduce market-based pay supplements to attract staff in shortage subject areas and use performance-related pay increases for the "contribution" made by staff.
A memorandum of understanding was agreed with the AUT to minimise the scope for local flexibility and ensure that no AUT member lost pay as a result of the reforms.
But Gill Howie, senior lecturer at Liverpool's philosophy department and an AUT activist, said: "Some universities are playing fast and loose with their interpretation of the memorandum.
"There seem to be multiple interpretations, and we say there should be only one."
A separate motion from University College London's branch warns of the "stress that local pay negotiations and job evaluation have caused in some institutions, with the consequent risk of seriously weakening our union".
It says that UCL management was trying to implement a "complex and opaque process of job evaluation" before answering "critical questions on pay and grading".
"Had we known the impact of the national pay framework, we would have opposed any settlement last year that was not binding on the employers," UCL staff add.
A third motion, from Leeds AUT, says that the introduction of "local pay bargaining" has required too much protracted discussion at the level of the institution.
"The duplication of such efforts, and the uneven way in which individual deals are being brokered, is disadvantaging AUT members," it says.
The motion, backed by the AUT executive, urges a campaign "calling for the dissolution of local pay bargaining at institutional level".
CONFERENCE HOT SPOTS
To merge or not to mer ge?
The planned merger between the AUT and lecturers' union Natfhe could be kicked into touch at the AUT council next week.
The AUT executive will put a motion to the delegates asking them to give the go-ahead to a full membership ballot in autumn on the planned merger, as long as Natfhe members do the same at their national conference next month.
The executive has urged delegates to reject three motions from the Liverpool AUT branch, which would throw the two unions back into detailed negotiations over the planned single super-union.
The Liverpool motions call for clauses in the constitution of the new union that "protect" the distinct notion of the university as both a teaching and research institution in a union that will be dominated by further education college members in teaching-only institutions.
The AUT will call for a "comprehensive independent public review of the funding of university research" and its effects on teaching, given the "disastrous effects" of the research assessment exercise.
A motion from the AUT's council says that the RAE has "led to the closure of departments with strong research profiles and healthy student recruitment", has led to "job losses, discriminatory practices, widespread demoralisation of staff, the narrowing of research opportunities and the undermining of the relationship between teaching and research".
AUT delegates will be asked to endorse a joint union claim for a 10.6 per cent pay rise for 2005.
The claim demands the addition of three new annual pay increments for those stuck at the top of their pay grades and calls for a minimum hourly rate of £35.34.
The draft claim says that the introduction of top-up fees in 2006 will help make the increase affordable after 20 years without a real-terms pay increase.