Tension is building ahead of possible strikes over pension cuts after union officers pulled out of a key meeting to stop changes going through "without negotiation".
University and College Union officers refused to attend a meeting of the decision-making committee of the £30 billion Universities Superannuation Scheme on 2 March.
With the committee split between representatives of the UCU and the employers, the balance of power is held by the independent chair, Sir Andrew Cubie.
The changes, which have been proposed by employers and scheduled for implementation on 1 April, include phasing out final-salary benefits and linking pension rises to a lower rate of inflation.
A union spokesman said: "UCU was told that the chair was going to vote through changes without any negotiation. So our negotiators - in the absence of commitment to further talks - refused to stay and allow that to happen."
Another meeting was scheduled to take place on 9 March.
After winning a strike ballot on the USS changes, the UCU has called on employers to hold talks via the conciliation service Acas to avert industrial action - or face rolling action building to a UK-wide day of action on 24 March.
Strikes could occur at 63 universities - mostly pre-1992 institutions, for which the USS was created - including all of the Russell Group.
In the ballot, 65 per cent of UCU members who voted backed strike action and 82 per cent supported action short of a strike. Turnout was 36 per cent. The union won a narrower majority on its ballot to strike over the employers' offer of a 0.4 per cent pay rise and refusal to agree a national job security deal, with 53 per cent backing strike action on a 34 per cent turnout.
Union officers are to discuss the next steps on pay and jobs on 10 March. The UCU spokesman said "no options are ruled out", but employers would seize on the narrow vote in the event of a strike.
Some union members are disappointed by an error in the notices of ballots sent to universities, in which the start date was listed as 2 February 2010. The UCU had to send out fresh notices and some believe the delay cost it votes.
A spokesman for the Employers Pensions Forum said: "More than two years of negotiations on the shape of USS reforms took place and UCU was fully involved at every step. The negotiation process ended in July 2010, when the USS board approved the changes proposed by the employers...Many members will recognise that the nature of the proposed changes is very moderate."