Lecturers have warned university chiefs and the government that the gloves are about to come off in the fight over pay.
The warning from the Association of University Teachers affirms members' resolution in the face of critics who have called the union's industrial action over the summer, including the boycotting of the admissions process, a damp squib.
Assistant general secretary Paul Cottrell said: "We have been sparring up to now, but the real fight is about to begin. Staff have been enraged by the lack of concern shown by vicechancellors."
The AUT expects to be joined by sister union Natfhe, which is consulting members on whether to ballot for action in the autumn. Future action could involve a series of one-day strikes, increased non-completion of adminstrative duties - including examinations and marking - and even an all-out strike.
A Natfhe spokeswoman said that it looked likely that the union would ballot for industrial action. She said: "If we do end up in a dispute, it will be a serious dispute."
Both unions have rejected the employers' 3.5 per cent pay offer. They wanted 10 per cent in a bid to redress the 30 per cent decline in lecturing pay relative to the non-manual average. The unions are also pressing the government to provide the estimated Pounds 400 million need to fund the pay recommendations in the Bett report.
Vice-chancellors, represented in the pay dispute by the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, denied complacency. They pointed out that it was vicechancellors who pushed for the Bett inquiry into pay and conditions.
Declan Leyden, assistant director of UCEA, said: "It is for the AUT to accept the 3.5 per cent. It is the best offer in real terms they have ever had and other unions recognise this. For the good of staff, the universities and the students we need to get on with the Bett agenda and for that we need constructive discussions not disruptive action."
Other, non-academic higher education unions - Unison, the GMB and the Manufacturing, Science and Finance union - have accepted the 3.5 per cent offer.
Opinion, page 12