Lecturers' union leaders plan to starve the UK of nurses, teachers and key public sector workers this year to underline the seriousness of their "now or never" campaign for higher salaries.
Members of the Association of University Teachers and its sister union Natfhe voted in unprecedented numbers last week in favour of taking industrial action throughout 2006 in support of a pay rise of up to 23 per cent over the next three years.
The action will start with a one-day strike on March 7 and will be followed immediately by a continuous boycott of all examinations and assessment.
The unions said that "millions" of students would not be able to progress through degree courses and that thousands could be prevented from graduating in the summer, causing politically damaging chaos as top-up fees are introduced in the autumn.
Andy Pike, Natfhe's national officer for higher education, said that those training to become key public sector workers would be the first to be affected, to increase pressure on vice-chancellors from Government.
"Natfhe's action will have a real impact on the recruitment of nurses, midwives and teachers," Mr Pike said.
"There is a real feeling that if we are ever to do anything to improve academics' pay, it is this year, as the sector gains billions of extra money through top-up fees."
Both unions were celebrating high turnouts in the ballots. Just over half of all AUT members voted, with 64 per cent backing strike action and 81 per cent backing the marking boycott. Natfhe turnout was 47 per cent, with an even stronger endorsement of action.
Sally Hunt, AUT general secretary, said that members had delivered a clear mandate for industrial action.
"I would suggest that the employers take note of that message and act accordingly," she said.
But the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association said that the size of the vote - with about 24,000 academics endorsing action - represented "less than 10 per cent of all higher education employees".
Ucea also criticised the unions for pressing ahead with their action despite an offer to return to pay talks if they put the action on ice.
"Their aim is to create a needless disruption now, despite the fact that the next review of staff salaries isn't due until August," a spokesman said.
Ucea added that it could not yet provide the academic unions with a firm pay offer to kick-start negotiations because the five non-academic trade unions representing the sector had not yet made their pay claims.