Lecturers' leaders this week accused vice-chancellors of squandering scarce resources desperately needed for staff pay as the first round of talks began over the trade unions' demands for a 15 per cent pay rise.
The Association of University Teachers said that vice-chancellors had wasted much of the £330 million earmarked for pay on personnel managers' salaries and peripheral human-resources issues such as performance-related pay and "market premiums".
The AUT launched a lobbying campaign arguing that it would take just £94 million to increase starting salaries for all academic staff to £22,522, heading off an impending recruitment crisis.
The move came ahead of round-table pay talks between employers and all three academic trade unions, which are presenting a united pay claim for the first time.
Sally Hunt, AUT general secretary, said: "The most pressing thing facing the profession at the moment is how to raise staff morale and increase wellbeing in the workplace. The solution lies in an uplift in pay levels rather than in management gimmicks. The £94 million is a manageable and tangible amount in the current parameters."
Low starting salaries for academics is one of the key issues preventing bright graduates embarking on academic careers, who turn instead to more lucrative jobs, according to the AUT.
The union said the lowest starting salary for research staff in new universities was £11,562, rising to £19,575 for academic staff at the start of their careers. In old universities, academic staff get £20,470 and researchers get £17,626.
These sums compare with a £19,000 average graduate starting salary. The average starting wage for schoolteachers is £16,050.
Last year ministers provided £330 million over the three years to 2003-04 to improve pay and to deal with recruitment and retention problems.
"The AUT argues that the most important way of tackling recruitment and retention problems is to improve starting salaries, and that this pay initiative should be used in this way," Ms Hunt said.
The AUT is encouraged by a letter that higher education minister Margaret Hodge wrote to MP Tony Colman on staff pay. She wrote: "We do recognise that recruitment and retention of academic staff is a problem."
Ms Hodge said the £330 million was "a start" and was to support increases in pay. "However, I acknowledge that more needs to be done. We are taking this forward in the current spending review, the outcome of which will be announced in the summer," she said.