Ballot papers are to be sent to more than 37,000 lecturers in the old universities, marking the second phase and a potentially major escalation in the dispute over pay.
Both the examinations and admissions processes would be thrown into chaos if members of the Association of University Teachers decide not to mark papers or invigilate. Plans to boycott the administrative work associated with admissions could jeopardise school- and college-leavers' chances of a university place this year.
The association is the only one of the eight unions involved in the dispute to carry out a second ballot. AUT chiefs deemed a second ballot necessary to legitimise a specific attack on the exam process. The results of the ballot are due to be released on January 22.
AUT general secretary David Triesman said: "Unfortunately, it is impossible that an examination-marking boycott will not have an effect on students. However, they will still prepare for and sit papers as normal.
"The employers must be aware by now that there is an absolute determination to see this through to the end. This dispute is not going to fizzle out, in fact it is going to hit the system harder."
AUT members will also be asked to approve a complete withdrawal of goodwill. The union is already boycotting teaching quality assessment and appraisal and the second ballot would mean a boycott of other administrative tasks required to keep institutions running smoothly.
Natfhe, which represents some 19,000 lecturers in the new universities and HE colleges, has ordered a New Year go-slow on exam marking and student assessment. Union leaders say that the action does not require a further ballot as it is covered by the original ballot calling for action short of a strike.
Vice chancellors have admitted that the exam and admissions action could hit universities severely.
Gareth Roberts, chairman of the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, said: "The Universities and Colleges Employers Association is due to meet with the unions at the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service on January 10.
"Initial indications are that there would be no improvement upon the revised 2.5 per cent offer over two years."