The Universities and Colleges Employers Association (Ucea) has asked institutions to decide by the end of March whether or not they are going to take part in national bargaining on academics' pay.
Some universities are understood to have threatened to opt out of collective pay talks unless the University and College Union (UCU) agrees to reforms of the negotiating process, including changes to the negotiating timetable. While other campus unions have agreed to the reforms, the UCU has so far refused to do so and has not so far joined the formal pay negotiating table.
After a consultation in the past academic year, Ucea concluded that universities should be invited to opt in to collective negotiations. By doing so they would commit to abide by a code of practice on communications and management of industrial disputes. A separate code has been drawn up for those opting out.
The UCU's higher education committee was due to discuss a reaction to the codes at a meeting after Times Higher Education went to press this week. The UCU criticised Ucea for refusing to reopen talks on the negotiating reforms using the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service as an intermediary.
UCU general secretary Sally Hunt said: "The UCU views Ucea's macho strategy of refusing to even discuss the concerns of the largest union, while at the same time encouraging universities to believe they can opt in and out of national pay deals, as a tactical disaster for our sector.
"With the UK in recession, staff and management should be working together to provide stability. We need stable national bargaining supported by all parties."
A Ucea spokesman said: "The UCU is most definitely included in the national pay negotiations - the door remains open to them. The Guide to Negotiations simply normalises and updates sector-wide negotiations."