Staff must embrace fundamental changes to their working lives if they are to convince the government to release cash for pay increases needed to avert a potentially catastrophic staffing crisis.
The changes, which will affect all university staff, from cleaners to professors, will be discussed in a series of meetings between trade unions and employers.
Pay, workloads, equality, career progression routes, the balance of teaching and research, national terms and conditions, performance-related pay and job descriptions are on the agenda for three joint staff-employer working parties meeting from the end of this month.
One party will look at "modernisation" and the new national contract; another must agree a single pay spine governing career progression for all university staff; and the third will address equal pay and job evaluation.
They have been set up by the national Joint Negotiating Committee, a new body that brings together employers and all nine higher education trade unions around the same negotiating table for the first time. Each will report back to the JNC by March next year.
Jocelyn Prudence, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association, said the negotiations had to show ministers that the sector was ready to embrace modern, accountable and flexible working practices in return for extra government money.
The equal pay working party will meet on October 31. Employers are thought likely to agree to conduct detailed audits in a joint effort to ensure equal pay for work of equal value.
The single-pay-spine working party is expected to encounter difficulties. Nine separate spines are to be merged into one, making pay for lecturers in old and new universities comparable for the first time.
Unions are expected to clash with employers over the basic minimum wage at each level of the spine. And difficult negotiations are expected over the number of increments lecturers are forced to scale over eight years before reaching the maximum lecturer salary.
The working party on modernisation will start with employers and lecturers agreed that the national contract on terms and conditions in new universities needs modernising. However, Natfhe will defend basic protections, especially rules on maximum teaching workloads, while employers appear keen to scrap the national contract in favour of local agreements.
Malcolm Keight, assistant general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, said his union's two main concerns were to ensure that pay levels were increased sufficiently to avert a recruitment and retention crisis, and that casualisation was eradicated.