Academic union leaders and university employers clashed again over pay scales and job evaluation schemes this week, threatening to scupper hopes of bringing the two sides back to the negotiating table.
The Association of University Teachers accused the Universities and Colleges Employers Association of "gross incompetence" after the union claimed it had uncovered errors by Ucea in proposed salary scales that, in one year, would leave academics £2 million worse off overall and non-academic staff with £1 million less in their pay packets.
The fresh mud-slinging appeared to snuff out hopes that employers were ready to reopen talks with the AUT.
Ucea's chief executive Jocelyn Prudence said she had been misquoted in a newspaper website article that reported her as saying "the door is always open to reopen negotiations".
An AUT spokesman had said: "If this latest shift by the employers is sincere, then the AUT is prepared to reopen negotiations on our key issues of pay and grading."
But Ms Prudence told The THES : "We are interested in finding ways through these problems. But it would be difficult for us to renegotiate a national framework that we have agreed with most other unions."
The AUT said its members were showing "huge enthusiasm" across the country for a yes vote for industrial action in ballots that will close on February 11.
The union said a new analysis of salary scales proposed by Ucea revealed that they would result in 2,255 full-time academic staff dropping one point and losing £9 a year each - leading to a total loss of more than £2 million from academics' pay in one year. Similar mistakes on non-academic scales would leave staff in this category a total of £1 million worse off.
An AUT spokesman said: "These figures show that many thousands of hard-working university staff across the grades are at risk of losing a combined annual figure of more than £3 million because of the shockingly incorrect figures produced by Ucea.
"We can only assume that these figures are the result of gross incompetence and that when we raise them with the employers they will do the decent thing and automatically correct them."
Ms Prudence said the figures would be scrutinised and any mistakes corrected.
"I would suggest that this is probably making a mountain out of a molehill over a minor technical issue that would normally be resolved at officer level," she said.
Ucea has also urged the AUT to cooperate over guidelines on job-evaluation schemes. The Higher Education Funding Council for England has made institution-wide job evaluations one of the pre-conditions for more staff development money.
Ucea policy adviser Peter Thorpe said that despite objections from the AUT, job evaluation could not be abandoned as it was a requirement of equal pay legislation.
But an AUT spokesman said research showed that such schemes could mean academic and support staff being paid less than staff with fewer qualifications.