All six campus trade unions united this week to reject a 5 per cent pay rise over two years.
Lecturers' union Natfhe and the Association of University Teachers said the offer, which covers 2005-06 and 2006-07, was "simply unacceptable" and "insulting". The unions have asked for 11.2 per cent over one year. The four support staff unions also said the offer needed to be "substantially improved".
But employers said the 5 per cent was on top of average increases of between 8 and 10 per cent over the same period, which will come as staff move to a new single pay spine under last year's pay modernisation agreement. They also said that pension payments will increase by 4 per cent.
After a split over the pay offer last year, which left the AUT taking strike action alone, the two academic unions were careful to present a united front.
In a joint statement, AUT general secretary Sally Hunt and her Natfhe counterpart Paul Mackney, say: "This offer fails to address the continuing problem of low pay for academic staff and is simply unacceptable.
"The academic unions will work closely together this year to ensure that the employers hear that message loud and clear from across the sector, and we are determined to secure a better deal on behalf of members."
One senior union source said: "It looks to me like they (the employers) are asking for a fight, and this year we will be united."
The trade unions met with employers for the first round of pay talks on Tuesday, and as The Times Higher went to press, details of the employers' initial offer were still sketchy.
The University and Colleges Employers' Association said it is "up for discussion" how the 5 per cent is phased in over the two years. It said university funding is "extremely tight" with funding increases earmarked for research. But the two unions said they were "fed up with sob stories".
"Despite the windfall of income from top-up fees, which comes on stream next year, plus substantial extra funding from the funding council for rewarding and developing staff, the employers are once again pleading poverty," the unions said.
The academic unions' joint pay claim demands an 11.2 per cent across-the-board increase, as a "catch-up and keep-up" package - reflecting "both the need for an increase that takes account of the cost of living and the need to catch up some of the ground lost due to low settlements in recent years".
The unions are also seeking a minimum hourly rate of £35.34 across both the pre and post-92 university sectors, to reflect the time spent on preparation and marking, as well as lecturing.
The pay talks are scheduled to conclude on June 23, for a settlement that would take effect from August.
Jocelyn Prudence, chief executive of Ucea, said: "Employers have shown with this pay offer the high value they place on staff."
The AUT also launched a "manifesto" demanding better pay and conditions for academic-related staff this week, amid concerns that they are being increasingly marginalised.