A "derisory" pay offer of 0.3 per cent has been rejected by the five higher education unions, after a second meeting of the joint negotiating group.
After the Joint Negotiating Committee for Higher Education Staff (JNCHES) meeting on April, the University and College Union, which is claiming at least 8 per cent, dismissed the employers' offer and vowed to press ahead with a ballot for industrial action.
The union had earlier threatened to call a ballot because employers had not made a pay offer at the first meeting of the committee, and had chastised the Universities and Colleges Employers Association for failing to commit to a policy to avoid redundancies.
Sally Hunt, the UCU general secretary, said: "The unions today unanimously rejected what we felt was a derisory pay offer of just 0.3 per cent. There is nothing to prevent Ucea negotiating a national agreement to prevent job losses. In these exceptional financial circumstances, we think it is absolutely essential."
The union has said it fears a "potential jobs meltdown" across the sector, adding that "up to 100 universities have signalled their intention to make redundancies".
It said more than 400 academic posts in nursing and midwifery were in danger, along with a further 100 in areas such as radiography, physiotherapy and speech therapy. Ministers have said they want to reduce the agreed level of funding for healthcare education by 9 per cent.
The UCU added: "Disruption to universities is on the cards unless employers sort out a national agreement to halt the swathing cuts."
The union's ballot for industrial action will close on 22 May. However, the other campus unions, which have not demanded a set increase, will continue negotiations.
Ucea accused the UCU of "scaremongering" over potential job losses. It said there was no evidence that 100 universities were implementing redundancies, although it conceded that "nearly 100" were considering job reductions.
Bill Wakeham, Ucea chairman, wrote to Ms Hunt on April, arguing that JNCHES "is not and cannot be a body that negotiates jobs".
"Redundancy is the last resort for higher education institutions and they will always seek to look at other voluntary and natural routes, such as recruitment freezes," he says.
"In many cases, the frameworks for job reductions - including redundancies - are among the most prescriptive in the UK economy."