Furious lecturers' leaders rejected a 13 per cent pay offer this week and claimed that employers withdrew a two-year deal that could have been accepted because some vice-chancellors would rather smash academic trade unionism than settle the dispute.
Both lecturers' union Natfhe and the Association of University Teachers, which merged to form the 120,000-strong University and College Union this week, rejected a new offer of 13.1 per cent over three years without a ballot.
They said that the 13.1 per cent offer was "insulting" as it amounted to a mere half a per cent extra over three years above the 12.6 per cent already on the bargaining table. There would be hardly any improvement in cash terms as the increases would be phased in, in five stages, over the three years, the unions said.
Senior union figures said that during 23 hours of informal negotiations last week, employers made a two-year offer in double figures, which could have enticed unions to put the offer to a ballot of members. But they said that this offer was torn up at the eleventh hour and replaced this week with a formal offer that the employers knew would not be acceptable to the unions.
Roger Kline, head of universities at Natfhe and a candidate for general secretary of the UCU, said: "The employers seem determined to not have a settlement. Their irresponsibility in not being willing to compromise is stunning.
"The employers appear more interested in defeating the academic trade unions than in serving the best interests of students."
Andy Pike, Natfhe's national negotiator, told The Times Higher : "The opportunity was there last week to do a deal - we were very, very close to a two-year deal. This is clearly political - they are trying to smash the UCU before it has started but we are ready for that."
Commenting on Natfhe members calls to continue industrial action "until Christmas", Mr Pike said: "Which Christmas?"
As its first act, the UCU called a national demonstration on Thursday.
The revised 13.1 per cent comprises a staggered 4 per cent rise in 2006-07, followed by two separate 3 per per cent increases during 2007-08 and 2.5 per cent in 2008-09. It would amount to 10.37 per cent by the end of 2007-08 and 13.1 per cent by 2008-09.
The unions have indicated that 10.37 over two years is acceptable, but refuse to be tied to a three-year deal with just 2.5 per cent in the third year.
Sally Hunt, AUT general secretary who becomes joint head of UCU this week, said: "The AUT is prepared to explore a two-year settlement that provides at least a double-figure uplift on salary points."
She called for a full transparent review to establish the amount of new money coming into the sector in 2008-09 through income streams such as top-up fees.
Bill Wakeham, vice-chancellor of Southampton University, said that the employers did not see the dispute as a political battle but he warned that if, as expected, the five non-academic unions accepted the 13.1 per cent, vice-chancellors were likely to impose it on academic staff locally.
The Universities and Colleges Employers' Association said it was untrue that there was any political motivation behind the latest offer - it was simply based on what was affordable.