Autumn strikes look set to hit old and new universities for the first time as unions join forces in protest at "paltry" pay offers and higher education funding cuts.
Tom Wilson, assistant general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, said: "I think we could be looking at the first shut down of the whole university sector." But he added: "We will make absolutely certain that no student suffers in any way."
The big three higher education unions, the AUT, Natfhe and Unison, agreed at a meeting on Monday to co-ordinate industrial action against 1.5 per cent pay offers and severe revenue and capital cuts. One-day strikes could begin by late October or early November.
The Association of University and College Lecturers, Manufacturing Science and Finance Union, representing technicians, as well as the General Municipal and Boilermakers and Transport and General Workers Unions, representing support and maintenance staff, are likely to fall into line.
One-day strikes could involve everyone from senior academic and administrative staff, to technicians and support and maintenance staff.
The AUT has called a special council meeting on September 18 to finalise arrangements for a ballot on industrial action.
Elaine Harrison of Unison, the single biggest union in the sector with 50,000 members, said: "I cannot recall industrial action in the higher education sector ever going this far."
The AUT and Unison are holding strike ballot consultations with local branches after rejecting the 1.5 per cent increase offered by the Universities and Colleges Employers Association. The UCEA made the same offer to AUCL and Natfhe negotiators yesterday.
A UCEA spokesman said: "We have no more money to offer. This year's offer is at an unacceptably low level and this is entirely due to the underfunding of the universities by the Government. We would hope the Government will restore adequate levels of funding."
Ted Nield, spokesman for the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, said: "We would hope that it is never necessary for unions to concert efforts in this way because of the damage it does to students' prospects."