Vice-chancellors have agreed to push ahead with national pay negotiations without the lecturers' trade union, raising the prospect of industrial action in the autumn and the collapse of national pay bargaining for academic staff.
Members of the University and College Union voted last week to reject proposed reforms of national bargaining arrangements.
The reforms would have set up a single national bargaining table for academic and support-staff unions and established a new negotiating timetable, which UCU members believe would restrict their ability to take effective industrial action.
After the UCU vote, delegates at the Universities UK spring conference agreed to proceed with the reformed structures with the non-academic unions, while "leaving the door open" to the lecturers' union.
Jocelyn Prudence, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, said this week: "We will be willing to listen to the UCU when we have clarity about their position and a better understanding of the nature of their mandate." She said UCU members rejecting the reforms amounted to 3 per cent of the sector's staff.
UCU general secretary Sally Hunt said: "For national bargaining to work effectively, the views of the largest union in higher education must be taken into account. The situation is serious and demands proper negotiations around the table."
Liz Lawrence, a member of the UCU's national executive, said: "If employers refuse to recognise us for national bargaining and decline to talk to us about the pay claim for 2009, that could give us grounds for a dispute in autumn."
But one union branch head said: "Frankly, I have my doubts about the level of commitment of some of my colleagues in the UCU to national pay bargaining."