Higher education's biggest union is to ballot for national strikes over jobs, pay and pensions as student activists claim that action could lead to the "shutdown" of the sector.
The University and College Union, which has about 65,000 higher education members, will hold a series of ballots for industrial action next month, potentially leading to strikes in March.
The Education Activist Network (EAN) and the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC), the new groups behind many student protests and university occupations, told Times Higher Education that they saw UCU strikes as a way of furthering their campaigns against fee rises and funding cuts.
And the National Union of Students is also committed to supporting staff strikes, following a policy shift last year.
The prospect of widespread student backing for strikes will buoy some staff but worry university managers, given the depth of anger over higher tuition fees and the impact of last year's wave of occupations.
Mark Bergfeld, a spokesman for the EAN and a master's student at the University of Essex, said: "If the UCU did vote for strike action, I think it could lead to the entire shutdown of our education system, including students shutting down parts of universities and staff shutting things down."
He added: "Once you have strike action and a student movement that is very politicised...it (isn't only) about jobs and pensions. It could become a joint fightback against the cuts."
Michael Chessum, an NCAFC organiser and a University College London undergraduate, said: "Everybody in the student movement is keenly aware that this won't come down to votes in Parliament and it won't come down to students marching.
"You have got to have the weight of education leaders, the lecturers and teachers, behind you. They are still the only people capable of shutting down the system. That may well be what happens."
The EAN, which includes lecturers and students among its members, draws some of its funding from UCU branches and has close links to the UCU Left group.
The UCU will ballot all members between 2 February and 2 March over the pay and conditions offer for 2010-11, after higher education employers refused to discuss a national deal on avoiding redundancies and offered a 0.4 per cent pay rise.
There will be an additional ballot in post-1992 universities, running between 23 February and 11 March, over the government's plans for higher member contributions to the Teachers' Pension Scheme.
And there will be another ballot in the pre-1992 sector, running alongside the pay and conditions ballot, if controversial changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme are approved by USS trustees at a meeting on 20 January.
Sally Hunt, the UCU general secretary, said the NUS "recognises that cuts in jobs and attacks on staff terms and conditions will also impact upon the quality of education".