More than 100,000 academics could be called out on strike as early as January next year, as the lecturers' unions dig in for what could become a long and militant pay campaign.
Lecturers' union Natfhe, the Association of University Teachers and the Scottish union EIS have given employers a deadline of December 2 this year to commit themselves to spend at least a third of the expected £1 billion extra income from top-up fees on staff pay in 2006.
If the employers refuse, the unions will ballot for industrial action in December and begin a campaign of action from January.
The move would mean the sector could face strikes over pay several months before the traditional start of annual pay talks (usually in the spring) and before any pay offer has been made.
Andy Pike, national official at Natfhe, said the unions intended "to move very quickly towards a dispute if employers refuse to honour their commitment to use a third of top-up fee income to improve pay and conditions. We envisage that if employers refuse to meet the commitment by December 2, industrial action ballot will follow. This will enable industrial action to take place nationally throughout the UK from January."
All campus unions have accepted 2005's 3 per cent pay offer but the academic unions made clear that they were preparing for a major campaign in 2006 when top-up fees are expected to bring in an extra £1 billion.
Employers have already indicated that they will not commit to any agreement based on projected fee income, as it is not clear how much fees will bring in, and the sector will not benefit from extra income until 2007.
In an e-mail to about 50,000 AUT members this week, general secretary Sally Hunt said that at a recent meeting, the employers had refused to commit, "citing the fact that they did not yet know how much money they would have". "I wonder how they are able to allocate precise sums of money for student bursaries but not for staff pay," she said.
A Universities and Colleges Employers' Association spokesman said: "No doubt some of the income generated through top-up fees will be invested in staffing, including such elements as pension provision, expansion of staff numbers and implementation of the Framework Agreement. However, the sums available will vary substantially from one institution to another. With many institutions unlikely to see any of that income before spring 2007, and the numbers of students paying increased fees remaining unclear for some time yet, the threat of industrial action is premature."