College representatives registered suspicion over ministers' motives, saying the Government was only interested in introducing local pay bargaining.
But Unison, the largest health union and normally the most militant, declared its readiness to attend negotiations over proposals which are understood to give considerable responsibility for wage negotiations to each NHS trust, but preserve a strong central input.
Ken Jarrold, NHS human resources director, is seeking agreement to a system involving a "national framework within which local bargaining will take place".
Phil Gray, head of labour relations at the college, said: "On the information we have, management is only interested in taking forward local bargaining. As far as we are concerned that is irrelevant."
Bob Abberley, head of health at Unison, hoped the college would still attend the talks. "All disputes have to be settled through negotiations. We are not going into talks to concede our principles, but to find a satisfactory solution."
While leaders of Unison yesterday welcomed the prospect of talks, they expressed confidence that the union's 350,000 members in the NHS had voted overwhelmingly to take action including a one-day national stoppage if there was no settlement.
Some leading Unison officials argue that any compromise on industrial relations by this government constitutes a victory, although other union officers are determined to have no truck with pay bargaining at the level of individual trusts.
It is expected that Unison will announce next Tuesday a nine to one majority in favour of action to follow a similar level of backing for action among 30,000 NHS therapists and a 75 per cent vote for disruption by radiographers.
The unions are protesting about management's offer - 1 per cent nationally with the possibility of a further 2 per cent locally - and the Government's insistence that local negotiations should be pre-eminent.
The Royal College of Nursing was last night seeking further clarification from senior government officials.
The RCN wants to ensure any negotiations will not detract from its strategy of achieving a de facto national 3 per cent increase "without strings". The college will begin signing local deals when 300 trusts have offered the desired package. More than 270 have already done so, according to Mr Gray.
A spokesman for the Department of Health said management was surprised by the RCN's reluctance to attend and hoped it would reconsider.