Strikes and protests will blight this year's university exams and admissions rounds if employers do not agree within weeks to pay higher salaries, lecturers have warned.
Agreeing a 10 per cent pay claim at its winter council last week, the Association of University Teachers called on employers to acknowledge the drop in pay levels of up to 36 per cent in real terms since 1981 and to vow to redress it.
Letters will go out to union members explaining the importance of the pay settlement, and the union will produce a pay manifesto, a regular "salary news" and a weekly progress bulletin via email.
General secretary David Triesman said the union would move towards a ballot on industrial action if the Universities and Colleges Employers Association disputed its claim or tried to delay the settlement to await the results of the Bett inquiry on pay and conditions. The Bett report is due a few weeks after the April 1 settlement date for lecturers in old universities.
If union members voted for industrial action, Mr Triesman said, it would probably start with a major event such as a one-day strike. The action would progress to lobbies at degree ceremonies, graduation events and university council meetings, after which he anticipated a withdrawal from parts of exam and admissions processes.
"If this issue is not resolved by the time it gets to clearing, the admissions system will blow out," Mr Triesman warned.
He said staff were already failing to volunteer to design and monitor higher education courses in further education colleges in protest at expansion of student numbers without extra money for the staff needed to teach them.
Explaining the likely timetable of the dispute to a supportive council, AUT executive member Natalie Fenton said: "We have to tell UCEA and Bett we are prepared to do it. We are angry enough to take it to the wire."
Lecturers' union Natfhe has also warned of widespread discontent if better working conditions do not result from the Bett inquiry.
Mr Triesman, who repeated his frequent call for an independent pay review, said people would be shocked by the statistics collected by the Bett team on casualisation and pay discrimination for women.
"I believe we will see employers facing an impossible task," he said. "They will never be able to account for why women are treated more disgracefully in our industry than probably almost anywhere else in the British economy."
He accused university managements, which employ a high proportion of people on short-term contracts, of incompetence and of enjoying the power that insecure employment terms gives to them.
Peter Humphreys, chief executive of UCEA, said: "The first step will be for the trade union to submit a claim or request a meeting or both."
UCEA will consider how to approach the pay claim when the board meets in mid-February.
The council also agreed to put pressure on Queen Mary and Westfield College management to engage in meaningful negotiations with the union regarding threats of compulsory redundancies in the civil engineering department.