Vice-chancellors want to make it harder for academics to climb the career ladder, trade unions claimed this week.
Ahead of next week's crunch talks on new pay structures, lecturers' union Natfhe and the Association of University Teachers both warned that the employers were pushing for changes to the system that would mean:
- Senior academics in some universities could earn less than junior colleagues elsewhere
- Lecturers would have to climb up more rungs of the career ladder to earn higher salaries at the top of their job grade
- Academics' progression up the pay spine depends more on performance measures than straightforward length of service
- Promotion from lecturer to senior lecturer would no longer be automatic.
"Academic careers are not very attractive at the moment. If employers reduce career rewards, they will have problems in recruiting and retaining staff, and the quality of the academic workforce will be damaged," said Malcolm Keight, AUT assistant general secretary.
Unions and employers agreed to set up a single national pay spine for university staff in 2001, but the academic unions are at loggerheads with vice-chancellors over how existing jobs will be defined and "translated" on to the spine. The unions believe the vice-chancellors are trying to build in so much flexibility to set pay at a local level that any national agreement will be meaningless.
The unions' primary concern is to make sure that academic job grades have a clear national definition rigidly pegged to the national pay spine, so that the same jobs attract identical salaries regardless of the university employing them. But some vice-chancellors have indicated that they want local flexibility.
Mr Keight said: "It would be wrong to have a position where a professor in one university might be earning less than a senior lecturer somewhere else.
That would destroy the nature of a career progression through the profession."
Tom Wilson, head of universities at Natfhe, said that if job grades were not clearly linked on a national pay spine, there would be a local "free-for-all".
The unions are also concerned that employers want to reduce service increments as the key progressor up the pay scale, instead adding new performance-related pay criteria. The number of job grades and pay increments are another bone of contention.
Jocelyn Prudence, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association, said: "Change in pay structures is never easyI so it is not surprising that there are differences. But we are making progress in the talks and it is a genuine negotiation. We are listening to the unions as well as to the vice-chancellors."
• Universities face an "autumn of aggro" if they fail to address the "low-pay scandal" of manual and support staff, the Transport and General Workers' Union heard at its annual conference this week. Chris Kaufman, the union's national secretary, said support staff in universities were now the worst paid in the public sector. All higher education unions are united behind the demand for a minimum £11,000 salary for support staff.