Lecturers will take the first steps towards strike action today after rejecting the employers' offer of a 3 per cent pay rise.
An executive meeting of the Association of University Teachers will start the process of balloting for industrial action today, with ballot papers going out in mid-April.
AUT general secretary David Triesman said it would be "the beginning of a spring of discontent in education". He is to call a meeting of all education union general secretaries to discuss how to coordinate action.
News of the employers' offer was broken to an angry conference of union activists last Friday. The conference had been called to discuss industrial action should employers fail to come close to their demands for a 10 per cent rise and settlement by April 1.
A further meeting of union negotiators and employers has been called for April 13. Employers have not said 3 per cent is their final offer.
Peter Humphreys, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, said: "Both parties are reflecting on what was said, and we have agreed provisionally to a further meeting."
He said the specific offer put to the AUT was not tied to the Bett inquiry on pay and conditions in higher education, due to report next month.
But AUT president Chris Banister told conference delegates: "We have made clear that since there will not be settlement by April 1, there may be a ballot. We expected there to be a much higher offer than that."
He said union negotiators had stressed to employers how far staff had improved productivity in recent years and how more needed to be done to help young workers, women and staff development. They had been told these issues had to be looked at in relation to outcomes from the Bett committee.
Natalie Fenton, a member of the AUT executive, warned delegates: "Don't bet on Bett.
"The feedback we are getting is that there doesn't seem to be much of a consensus. If we want a fair deal, we are going to have to fight for it."
She also warned against giving in to offers from some universities to make an early settlement of between 2.5 and 3.5 per cent. "Don't sell the whole dispute short by agreeing to do something that could end up depressing everyone's salaries," she said.
AUT delegates discussed industrial action ranging from one-day strikes to disrupting quality assessments, exams and admissions.