University chiefs are turning their backs on this year's staff pay deal just months after signing up to the biggest shake-up of academic careers for 40 years, the largest lecturers' union claimed this week.
At its annual conference in Blackpool at the weekend, the union raised the prospect of strike action after reporting that only a quarter of vice-chancellors have said they intend to meet the national pay rates set out in the deal, with others looking to set their own local pay levels.
Industrial action would stall the implementation of the historic framework agreement for the modernisation of pay structures.
Natfhe officials accused vice-chancellors of "betraying" the agreement by "cherry-picking" the least expensive elements.
Mick Jardine, representing Natfhe's Southern Region, said the failure of university heads to commit to the agreement was "deeply shocking and catastrophic". He added: "We have to send out a message loud and clear that we will not tolerate this."
The attack drew an angry response from employers' representatives, who accused the union of reneging on the framework it had signed up to after more than two years of intense negotiations.
Geoffrey Copland, vice-chancellor of Westminster University and chairman of the employers' side of the joint negotiating committee on pay, said he was "astonished and appalled" by Natfhe's attacks.
The framework creates a single pay spine for all staff, from porters to professors, in old and new universities. It introduces a form of performance-based pay - giving extra pay increments to staff on the basis of their "contribution" - and formalises a system of market-based pay supplements for shortage subjects.
Staff will undergo detailed job evaluations to ensure equal pay for equal work and to establish where they sit on the pay spine. But Natfhe said the vice-chancellors wanted to carry out job evaluations before signing the recommended system of linking national academic job grades to the spine.
Conference delegates carried an emergency motion agreeing to take firm action in support of the commended pay model laid out in Appendix C of the framework document. The motion, from Southern Region and endorsed by the National Executive Committee, says: "There are early indications that higher education employers are reneging on the key commitment to implement Appendix C as the basis of the framework agreement."
The conference instructed the NEC to "start organising for national industrial action unless there is a commitment" to implement the agreement across the sector.
Although the new universities represented by Natfhe escaped strikes and an exams boycott over the deal, the motion raises the spectre of strike action before the end of the year. The Association of University Teachers, which represents staff in the old-university sector, recently ended industrial action.
Andy Pike, national higher education official at Natfhe, told the conference: "To prevent employers cherry-picking, we are advising that each local branch needs to finalise an implementation agreement, setting out what is going to happen from A to Z on every element of the agreement."
He said only half the employers the union had written to seeking a commitment to the pay model had replied, and only half of those had said they would implement it. "This is, quite frankly, unacceptable."
Dave Fysh, from Southern Region, said: "It is not a question of the agreement going wrong in one or two places, it looks like the employers are pulling out. They will have the dispute they thought they had so cleverly avoided."
Responding to the developments, Dr Copland accused the union of reneging on the agreement. He said: "Does Natfhe not remember that it signed an agreement, accepted with a strong majority, that states clearly that Appendix C is simply one method of implementing the framework agreement, and that it is up to local union branches to negotiate individually on how it is implemented? I have a simple rule - read what you have agreed.
"There is no question of not implementing the agreement. Each individual institution is working on how to implement it with local unions, in exactly the way set out in the document. It seems that two months after finally getting an agreement on how to proceed, there is a movement by Natfhe to renege on that."