The lecturers' union is to demand a pay rise of at least 8 per cent for 2009 - despite employers' warning that they should expect "0 per cent" after recent increases.
The University and College Union (UCU) agreed at a special conference last week to claim either 8 per cent or a sum equivalent to the retail prices index, plus an additional 5 per cent, whichever is greater.
The UCU also confirmed that it would make its claim for 2009-10 "by the end of the year", despite employers' insistence that they will not consider any claim before the end of March 2009. UCU delegates agreed to ballot for industrial action if the claim was not considered promptly.
"The gloves are coming off," said a source at the meeting.
The University and Colleges Employers Association (Ucea) continues to insist that negotiations should not start until 30 March, because of uncertainties surrounding student numbers and the fact that the funding allocations are not available until then. The union objects to this timetable, fearing that it would limit its ability to take industrial action at exam time.
The timetable has been agreed with the other campus unions as part of reforms to the Joint Negotiating Committee for HE Staff (JNCHES). The UCU has declined to join formal JNCHES negotiations in a dispute over the timetable.
Ucea chairman Bill Wakeham wrote to UCU general secretary Sally Hunt on 6 November, warning that there was "no mechanism" to discuss pay before March.
Professor Wakeham also reminded the UCU that JNCHES' review of finance and pay data had not yet been completed and the union had agreed, as part of the 2006-09 pay deal, that this review would "facilitate and inform future negotiations".
"It is difficult to reconcile a pay claim prepared in advance of the completion of this review with the commitment that the review should inform future pay negotiations," the professor said.
The review is due to be published in early December.
A Ucea spokesman described the union's pay claim as "wholly unrealistic and certainly unaffordable".
"Not only is the preparation of this claim premature, it also seems to have been constructed without any reference to the exceptional recent pay increases and current economic environment," he added.
All university staff should have received pay rises of 15 per cent over the past three years, and the British Universities Finance Directors' Group told Times Higher Education in September that staff should expect a "nil uplift" for 2009.
UCU general secretary Sally Hunt said that talk of a 0 per cent offer next year was "inflammatory".
"Nobody can refute that staff in higher education work extremely hard or that they deserve to be properly rewarded. For too long university employers held down staff pay rises. Recent increases have gone some way to righting that wrong, but there is still a long way to go. UCU members are determined to defend the value of the pay rises they have won."