Strike action could shut universities this autumn as unions representing tens of thousands of staff, from professors to cleaners, unite to reject an "insulting" 2.5 per cent pay increase when they had asked for 15 per cent.
They could also cause chaos in August by boycotting the student admissions process and starving the National Health Service of thousands of new nurses, radiotherapists and other professionals by withholding the results of professional exams.
The non-academic unions are promising to unite with the academic ones to cause maximum disruption, withdrawing porters, cleaners and security staff unless there is a "very substantial" increase to the pay offer.
The call to arms comes after last week's talks on pay under the new single national negotiating committee. The employers' offer of a 2.5 per cent increase was rejected as "insulting and totally inadequate" in a joint statement by lecturers' unions Natfhe, the Association of University Teachers and the Educational Institute of Scotland.
"Higher education staff have already clearly demonstrated their commitment to deliver all that successive governments and vice-chancellors have asked them; now it is time for management to meet their side of the bargain," said the statement. "Without a significantly improved pay offer it will prove impossible for ministers to attract enough new lecturers and academics to both expand student numbers and maintain standards."
The unions, which must consult members to agree their strategy, have promised "coordinated action". But the AUT has already threatened a boycott of admissions in August.
Natfhe said it would expect to ballot in October and use a national strike to launch a campaign of escalating action short of a strike. Natfhe expects to withhold exam marks from November, which will reach a head in December and January when the semester comes to an end and the first cohort of newly qualified health professionals would need their exam results to enter the NHS.
Chris Kaufman, national secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union, said: "Total shutdowns are possible. Employers will not be able to keep universities going without security people, porters or cleaners."
The unions are to meet employers on July 15, after the expected announcement of the comprehensive spending review, and agreement is needed for August 1.
Jocelyn Prudence, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association, said the offer was 2.8 per cent, including a minimum increase of 2.5 per cent, or £5 for the lowest-paid staff.
Philip Love, chair of the UCEA and vice-chancellor of Liverpool University, said: "The offer is very reasonable in the light of the extremely serious financial difficulties many universities will face over the coming year, given the small increase in government funding and the chancellor's rise in National Insurance contributions."
* Members of public service union Unison in London's old universities have pledged to strike for more financial support to meet the extra costs of living in the capital.
A consultative ballot showed 90 per cent of union's 6,000 London university members supported strike action for an increased London weighting, frozen for the past ten years.