The University and College Union will ballot members for a national strike this academic year unless higher education institutions agree to national talks on job security.
The move, agreed by the UCU's higher education sector conference, follows a spate of redundancy announcements by universities in the wake of planned government funding cuts.
It comes as the five higher education unions last week submitted a jointly agreed pay claim of a minimum 4 per cent increase for 2010-11. The unions say this is needed to keep wages in line with inflation and make up the gap between rising costs and this year's 0.5 per cent settlement.
They say in the claim that average vice-chancellors' pay has risen faster than that for most staff in recent years. "Staff will not be prepared to listen for a second year to calls for restraint from those who have pocketed significant increases for themselves."
The claim also includes a £550 lump-sum payment for low-paid staff, along with a call for "national negotiations on the provision and sustaining of jobs, leading to jointly agreed proposals to improve job security across the sector".
The unions want universities to commit to considering alternatives before seeking redundancies.
The UCU's move towards a national ballot follows criticism from some members, who have accused the union of failing to mount a national response to retrenchment.
In another move towards a coordinated response, local UCU strikes already planned in response to redundancy plans could be held on the same day in the summer term.
Such action could link further one-day strikes at the University of Sussex with stoppages at King's College London, where UCU members this week voted to strike. Ballots have also opened at University College London and the University of Westminster.
The Universities and Colleges Employers Association refused to enter into job security talks last year, saying it had no mandate to do so and that job agreements were a matter for individual institutions.
The latest issue of the UCU newsletter, HE News, says the conference backed preparations "for a national mobilisation for simultaneous industrial action at all higher education institutions before the end of this academic year, should the component institutions of Ucea refuse to agree to negotiations on jobs".
A UCU spokesman said: "We have only just put our joint national claim in and will be keenly awaiting the response, particularly around the key issue for our members of job security ... Where jobs are at risk, we are of course encouraging branches to coordinate action to have maximum impact."
He said that negotiations, such as those that averted recent strike action planned at the University of Leeds, were "the best way to safeguard jobs".
After the UCU conference vote, Sally Hunt, the union's general secretary, will write to vice-chancellors asking them whether they will agree to be represented by Ucea in national talks on job security.
The pay claim for 2010-11 has been submitted to the Joint Negotiating Committee for Higher Education Staff after being agreed by the five higher education unions - the Educational Institute of Scotland, GMB, the UCU, Unison and Unite.
Along with a minimum 4 per cent pay rise, the unions also want the national pay spine to be extended to include professors, vice-chancellors and hourly paid staff, and London weighting to be increased to £6,000.
NO CONSULTATION, NO EVIDENCE, NO FUTURE? UCL bioscientists issue protest over staff cuts
Academics in a world-leading faculty at University College London have launched a grass-roots protest against proposed budget reductions.
More than 140 academic staff in the Faculty of Life Sciences, representing 96 per cent of the Division of Biosciences, have written to UCL's provost, Malcolm Grant, to express "profound" concern about plans to save about £3 million through 20 voluntary redundancies.
The exercise is part of a wider plan by the institution to save £20 million this academic year.
"We ask that we be provided with a convincing case for the present scheme for multiple redundancies," write the signatories, who include the heads of four research departments.
There has been "no consultation" about the decision and "no evidence" that the staff left behind will be able to cope with the higher workload, it says.
The letter also accuses UCL of creaming off a disproportionate amount of the faculty's budget to pay for institution-wide central services and says the faculty is being treated differently from others.
Professor Grant denies this claim. Instead, he writes that the proposals are driven by "the deterioration in financial performance in recent years, which, regrettably, has been quite marked in the life sciences".
He adds that the "saving target" for each faculty is the same.
The faculty was reorganised in 2008. Eight departments were abolished, with administrative and teaching functions pooled. But staff say this has taken power from academics and failed to reduce costs or bureaucracy.
A consultation on proposals for the faculty closes on 26 March.