Funding equal pay in higher education to meet government demands for a level playing field could make ministers choose between increasing universities' budgets by 2.5 per cent - or losing up to 2,900 junior researchers or 8,700 junior lecturers.
The financial implications were uncovered days after Education Secretary David Blunkett condemned the pay gap between men and women as "an affront to equality and justice". But ministers have been unable to explain how universities could meet their legal obligations to close the pay gap without sacrificing the quality of research and teaching.
Mr Blunkett, launching a campaign with the Equal Opportunities Commission, said he would "move decisively towards narrowing the gap between earnings of men and women ... What I am interested in is [helping] create a society where women and men are given the same opportunities at work."
Women in all walks of life earn almost a third less than men in similar jobs, drawing an average salary of pounds 15,438 compared to pounds 21,877 for men. The issue has been taken up by the ministers for women, Baroness Jay and Tessa Jowell, who pledged to change the Equal Pay Act, introduced 30 years ago, to end the pay gap within 20 years.
The Independent Review of Higher Education Pay and Conditions (aka the Bett Report) makes it clear that a 2.5 per cent increase in the budget would be needed for the pay gap to be closed without cutting jobs.
Last week, higher education minister Malcolm Wicks pointed out that the Government had provided an extra pounds 776m to universities over two years, adding that pay rates for academics were "a matter for their employers - the universities - and those who represent the sector". But the Bett Report has already taken into account that pounds 776m.
Liberal Democrat higher education spokesman Dr Evan Harris warned last night that the funding shortfall could amount to 10 per cent of junior researchers and lecturers, many of them women, losing their jobs unless the Government could find pounds 280m a year from other sources. "The Government professes its commitment to quality in education and equal pay but it must know that universities cannot meet both these commitments without a substantial increase in funding," he said.