Academic trade unions have rebuffed a move by employers to reopen pay negotiations, refusing to put planned industrial action on hold unless vice-chancellors put a "substantive offer on the table".
The Universities and Colleges Employers' Association has written to the Association of University Teachers and lecturers' union Natfhe, offering to resume talks later this month. But the offer was made on the proviso that the unions "put on hold any industrial action authorised by the two unions'
current ballots", due to close on February 16.
Ucea initially refused to offer to reopen talks over the claim for a 20 per cent pay rise over three years while the union was holding a ballot for strike action and an examinations boycott.
But the reply from unions this week states that there is "no reason to ask our members to defer existing plans for industrial action" while there is no firm pay offer.
Ucea chair Geoffrey Copland told the unions in a letter last week: "We remain deeply disappointed by your apparent preference for action that could adversely affect students rather than for serious negotiations on the claim you had just submitted.
"Employers remain committed to constructive negotiations. Ucea is consulting our subscribing universities and colleges on the issues raised in your new claim. We would like to arrange a series of negotiating meetings with the aim of reaching an agreed settlement."
But in a letter of reply the unions say that, despite having submitted initial pay demands in October last year, the employers have failed to make any "substantive response".
Malcolm Keight, AUT deputy general secretary, says in the letter: "The academic unions are also committed to constructive negotiations. Our dealings with Ucea in the past have indicated that procrastination is a popular employer tactic and... we felt driven to ensure that staff concerns... were properly addressed in a timely matter. To attempt to make a deferral of action a condition of commencing meaningful negotiations, would only be interpreted by our members as further procrastination."
A spokesman for Ucea said that it was hard to produce a firm offer when support-staff unions, representing more than half of university staff, had not submitted their pay claim. HeJstressed that theJunions' letter referred to their "existing plans for industrial action" before their ballot had closed. He added:J"Academic unions seem determined to disrupt and rebuff dialogue."
The unions are building support from MPs for their campaign. An early day motion in Parliament, put down last week by Gordon Marsden, Labour MP and a member of the Education Select Committee, "urges university vice-chancellors to make their staff a priority and to seek a settlement to the current pay dispute".
As The Times Higher went to press, the EDM had received 29 signatures, including those of Glenda Jackson, a former Labour minister, and Peter Bottomley, a former Conservative minister.
The unions' claim that the details of the 2006-07 government funding settlement for higher education last week confirm that their demands are easily affordable.
Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, last week confirmed that universities would receive £6.5 billion excluding the additional income from top-up fees. This includes a 6.7 per cent increase in the teaching grant for 2006-07, and a 7.3 per cent increase for research.
Paul Mackney, Natfhe general secretary, said the 20 per cent pay claim amounted to 8 per cent for 2006-07, which universities could "clearly afford".
But employers said that apart from an extra £20 million set aside for widening participation, the sums were the same as those already set out in the Comprehensive Spending Review last year. Ucea said that teaching funds reflected the increase in student numbers and were largely "eaten up" by inflation at 2.5 per cent. A Ucea spokesman said: "Pay increases greater than 2.5 per would therefore require an increase in the staff-student ratio."
Ucea added that the research funding would be highly concentrated in elite institutions and could not form the basis of a national pay settlement.
Sally Hunt, AUT general secretary, said: "There has never been any question of whether or not the employers can afford to meet our demands. Our claim is fully costed."