Ministers want to introduce performance-related pay for university teaching, prompting concerns that there is unlikely to be any additional cash for lecturers' pay without strings attached.
In her speech to the Social Market Foundation last week, higher education minister Margaret Hodge said that she wanted to introduce "new rewards for excellence in teaching with appropriate performance-related pay for teaching", as part of plans to fuel diversity in universities.
A spokesman for the Department for Education and Skills confirmed this week that the minister was "absolutely committed" to PRP in universities but details would have to wait until after the Treasury's comprehensive spending review in July.
Unions were quick to sound a note of caution. Malcolm Keight, assistant general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, said the association was seeking urgent clarification from the department. He added that the priority should be to provide across-the-board funding increases for staff pay.
"If we are talking about something for something here, our members have been giving something for the past ten years or more and they are waiting for the return. Ministers should address the low pay that is inherent across higher education in general."
Ministers, through the Higher Education Funding Council for England, encouraged vice-chancellors to consider introducing performance-related pay systems when they announced £330 million of extra funding for staff pay, over the three years from 2001-02.
Universities bidding for a slice of the money had to demonstrate how they would address six priority areas, which included ways to reward staff performance.
But the move towards PRP caused controversy. A Hefce consultation in March last year said: "Some institutions and trade union respondents commented that PRP was likely to be divisive and non-productive within the HE sector, especially given the relatively low level of funding to support all of the priority areas. We recognise the challenges posed by introducing performance-review systems linked to reward."
Hefce said because of the difficulties, institutions would not be expected to give priority to encouraging PRP until the next academic year, 2002-03.