Pay talks ended in acrimony this week with the Association of University Teachers declaring a formal dispute and promising "damaging" industrial action early next year.
The AUT confirmed it would be strongly urging its 47,000 members to vote "yes" to strikes and a campaign of industrial action, which will include a boycott of students' assessments in early February. It failed to secure any concessions from the employers over this year's 7.7 per cent pay offer.
"The employers' pay and modernisation proposals are truly insulting," said the AUT's deputy general secretary Malcolm Keight.
"During the past 20 years, higher education pay has fallen substantially in comparison with all other sectors, and yet we are faced with a proposed system that would lead to underregulated localised wage-bargaining, widespread downgrading and hefty losses in salary for many hard-working employees."
The union accused the employers, the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, of "snatching defeat from the jaws of victory". It said Ucea had initially offered to renegotiate key elements of the pay and modernisation package, only to withdraw the offer later in the day.
A statement from the AUT says: "The employers' actions today have been absolutely shocking. First, they said they were willing to review the pay structure. Then, an hour or so later, they suddenly withdrew the offer.
Unfortunately, it now seems clear that they would prefer a damaging dispute rather than seek a negotiated settlement."
The AUT is concerned that the deal, which pledges 3.4 per cent this year, 3 per cent next year and an expected additional 1.1 per cent when universities transfer all staff to a new pay spine from 2006,is not only too low but intro-duces too many insecurities and hurdles to the career paths of its members.
Although its claims are strongly refuted by the employers, the AUT said that academic-related staff could lose up to £47,000 over a 21-year career, with researchers losing £17,300 under the deal.
The union is also furious that, under the deal, national wage-bargaining will be abandoned for academic-related staff, which make up about a quarter of its members, while academics are kept on national pay scales.
Lecturers' union Natfhe, which still hopes to be able to recommend the deal to members early next year, said that the employers' behaviour had been "bizarre".
Roger Kline, Natfhe's head of universities, said: "The employers initially made an offer to set up a working party to address the AUT's issues, and the AUT made a positive response.
" We are very disappointed that the opportunity to bring the AUT back into the talks has been missed."
Natfhe said the dispute meant it had made less progress than expected and it would continue to negotiate before putting the deal to its members in late January or early February.
The AUT said it would urge its members to vote for industrial action during a ballot between January 13 and February 11 and would launch a campaign of industrial action with a one-day strike shortly after, if it secured a "yes" vote.
Joceyln Prudence, chief executive of Ucea, said: "We are delighted that all other unions have either signed up to the deal or are working in partnership to take forward this change."
She said that Ucea had not withdrawn the offer but said the AUT had misinterpreted what was on the table.