A row over a pay-cut plan at the University of Hong Kong has escalated into a war of words between a top don and unionists after staff asked for assurances they would not be penalised for refusing to sign forms consenting to a lower salary. In an e-mail circulated to staff yesterday, Vice-Chancellor Ian Davies criticised a leading unionist for suggesting they would be persecuted for non-compliance. He also denied that he had threatened that staff would be sacked if they failed to sign forms consenting to a pay cut of between 1.58 and 4.42 per cent in October. The row erupted after the university's council decided last week to adopt the government's pay cut for the civil service. Salaries of university staff are linked to the civil service pay scale. In a letter sent with a consent form to staff on Monday, Professor Davies said the university would have to 'contemplate losing staff' in the long term if employees refused to give consent to the cut. Chan Chi-wai, chairman of the institute's Academic Staff Association, has voiced fears that his colleagues are afraid of having their contracts ended or face more severe cuts if they refuse to sign the forms. But in yesterday's e-mail, Professor Davies accused Dr Chan of committing a 'travesty' and said he had never threatened staff with layoffs. '[The association] fails to comprehend the warnings I have given over the effects upon the university if the consent forms are not signed . . . it is not a 'threat' to individuals who do not sign the form of consent,' he said. Professor Davies stressed that staff who refused to sign the forms would pose a risk to the university's image and its 'commitment' to the SAR, and would drain funds originally planned for salaries to pay for possible legal costs. 'I am not forcing any staff members to sign,' he added. But Dr Chan accused Professor Davies of being barbaric and vowed to write to him again in protest.