Senior academics at Leeds University have voted in favour of national bargaining, undermining threats by the elite Russell Group, of which Leeds is a member, to set its own pay.
The university's senate has carried a motion warning against a "possible breakdown of national pay bargaining" and calling on Leeds' managers "to use all their influence" in a bid to maintain the national system.
The move follows warnings from Michael Stirling, Russell Group chairman and vice-chancellor of Birmingham University, that universities in the 19-strong group would need to set their own pay to compete for the best staff in an international market.
Imperial College London and Nottingham University have already decided to go it alone with their own pay systems.
Although Leeds' senate is not its final policy-making body, as ultimate power rests with the governing council, the vote was welcomed by trade unions, which next week face crunch pay talks with employers on a 7.7 per cent two-year national deal.
Matt Waddup, assistant general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, said: "This development is hugely significant.
"If this is the thinking at Leeds, then it must be replicated at many institutions across the country. We believe the vast majority of universities wish to continue bargaining nationally on pay and grading."
The threat of a break-up of the national system has loomed large in this year's pay negotiations. As lecturers' unions Natfhe and the AUT dig their heels in over parts of the deal, both threatening industrial action if there are no improvements, employers have warned that industrial action would simply herald the collapse of the national system.
But the Leeds' motion said: "Senate notes that... staff are recruited in national and international markets and believes that nationally agreed pay structures are the fairest and most efficient way to enable this university to recruit the staff it needs."
This year's national pay deal offers an immediate increase of 3.44 per cent followed by 3 per cent next year, with about 1.2 per cent extra when universities move their staff to a new single pay spine, after an evaluation of all jobs.
While non-academic unions have accepted the package, the AUT has refused to accept the deal. It has warned that the pay spine would add too many pay "increments" before academics reach the top of the career ladder, and could lead to staff having their jobs downgraded. It will ballot on strike action next month if improvements are not made.
Mr Waddup said: "The employers need to hear this message from Leeds, and others, loud and clear and finally get down to negotiating with the AUT before it's too late."
Natfhe members are balloting on whether to press for more improvements through talks or to reject the offer and move to a strike ballot.
A spokeswoman for Leeds said: "We would like to see a successful conclusion to the national pay negotiations. Our council will take a formal policy view when the position is clearer."