Universities face virtual shutdown, trade union leaders have warned, as four higher education unions representing almost 100,000 staff secured a mandate for industrial action over pay and conditions this week.
Unions have called for pay increases of up to 30 per cent. But there is little sign that employers are prepared to improve this year's 3 per cent pay offer.
Lecturers, technicians, administrators and manual workers will join forces from December 5 to carry out an escalating and indefinite campaign of action described by union chiefs as the most significant the sector has ever seen. It includes a refusal by members of lecturers' union Natfhe and the Educational Institute of Scotland to mark students' work.
Administrative staff union Unison and the university technicians represented by the Manufacturing, Science and Finance union, voted to take action, which is expected to include work to rule. Ballots for action from manual workers unions the T&G and the GMB were expected as The THES went to press.
An all-out strike will not materialise as Unison failed to secure a majority vote for strike action by 3 percentage points. The MSF has declined to strike after a 51 per cent vote in favour. Only Natfhe and the EIS secured significant strike mandates. But all unions secured votes of more than 70 per cent for action short of a strike.
Of the 7,500 Natfhe members who voted, almost 80 per cent supported action and 56 per cent backed strikes. Tom Wilson, the union's head of universities, said: "The overwhelming support for action short of strike makes this the most significant campaign ever."
"Members perhaps realise that a strike usually just means a day without pay, and some just can't afford it. But the action short of a strike could bring things to a virtual standstill," Mr Wilson added.
Employers appeared unmoved by the ballots. Peter Humphries, head of the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association, said employers had made offers based on what was affordable. The £330 million extra for pay the government announced last week was a cumulative figure for three years and had no bearing on this year's pay offer, he said.
Unison said the employers had run out of excuses: "(Education secretary David) Blunkett has thrown them a lifeline. They now have the wherewithal to make a better offer this year."
The Association of University Teachers and the National Union of Students have pledged "demonstrative support" for the campaign.