Executive members of the Association of University Teachers will draw up a detailed timetable of industrial disputes today to prepare for immediate action should pay negotiations fail.
They are due to meet with employers for the first time on March 19 to discuss their claim for a 10 per cent pay increase.
But the union has said it will launch a programme of strikes and non-cooperation with applications and exams if no settlement is made by the April 1 deadline.
David Triesman, AUT general secretary, said: "The meeting is two weeks before the settlement date and if it is the first time employers can get together, then we will be late with the settlement, and if we are late with the settlement there will be a dispute."
He said he envisaged industrial action starting with a strike, with more possible during the year. "This could be a very long running and far-reaching dispute."
Peter Mitchell, personnel adviser at the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, said the group had arranged to meet the AUT and MSF on March 19.
"I would have thought settling by April 1 very unlikely given the date of the first meeting," he said. "But obviously we need to sit down with them first."
Today's AUT committee meeting will also discuss the union's response to the Bett inquiry and to its own casualisation campaign.