Vice-chancellors this week predicted the collapse of national pay bargaining as several admitted that they were ready to cut local deals with lecturers' unions in a bid to end the dispute.
A number of vice-chancellors have turned on their national representative body, the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association, stating that the stalemate in national pay negotiations will increase momentum towards local pay bargaining.
Vice-chancellors' frustrations with Ucea are expected to grow as they acknowledged that the continuing boycott of exams and assessments by the academic unions was about to enter a crucial phase and cause serious damage to students.
David Grant, vice-chancellor of Cardiff University, made it clear that he was frustrated by Ucea's refusal to talk to the Association of University Teachers and sister union, Natfhe, unless they agreed to suspend their action. He said that his institution could make more progress on pay by negotiating locally.
"We are getting close to a position where there will be harm if the dispute continues, so a settlement needs to be reached in a very short period of time," Professor Grant said. "I would question the long-term ability of one body to represent all universities in these kinds of negotiations."
Paul Light, outgoing vice-chancellor of Winchester University, said he had offered his staff a local deal that included a 9 per cent rise over the next two years with, potentially, another 5 per cent to follow. This is substantially more than the 6 per cent offered nationally over two years by Ucea.
Professor Light said: "Staff set great store by national collective bargaining now, and I'm happy with that. But this dispute will sharpen the issue, and the pressure on national bargaining is going to be great."
Sources close to the pay negotiations told The Times Higher that five vice-chancellors had offered local deals, some well above Ucea's current offer. No deals have been done yet.
John Brooks, vice-chancellor of Manchester Metropolitan University, confirmed that the debate about the future of Ucea was widespread. He said:
"I am aware of a number of institutions that are having that discussion. I am disappointed at the position Ucea took in refusing to meet with the unions."
Roger Brown, vice-chancellor of Southampton Solent University, said he thought that the position of Ucea was an issue.
He said that in future the organisation might continue as an overarching body. But he said: "It may end up with Ucea making an agreement that individual institutions can opt out of."
Bill Wakeham, vice-chancellor of Southampton University and a member of Ucea's board, said Ucea was holding a unified line. But he admitted: "There is pressure towards local bargaining that this type of dispute will increase."
Other vice-chancellors are questioning Ucea's decision to impose a condition on the unions' attendance at pay talks.
The unions had made a "valid" case for more pay, said Alan Gilbert, vice-chancellor of Manchester University, adding: "No dispute is ever resolved without dialogue, and the predicament for students resulting from this dispute is getting more and more serious by the week."
Roger Kline, head of the universities department at Natfhe, said: "We believe that the majority of vice-chancellors now want Ucea to talk without preconditions and to seek to reach agreement."
But he said that Natfhe remained opposed to local bargaining in higher education because it would lead to unfair and discriminatory pay systems.
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the AUT, said: "The sole reason this dispute has rumbled on as long as it has is because of Ucea's intransigence. I am still unclear as to why it refused to meet with us, and so it appears are many vice-chancellors."
Ucea said in a statement: "Ucea will continue to conduct negotiations at a national level on behalf of the higher education sector with the aim of reaching a national agreement on pay.
"Ucea's positions on pay and related issues are reached through detailed consultation, taking into account the varied perspectives of all universities and colleges of higher education."