The University and College Union has taken a step towards national strike action over job security - and is also threatening to launch the "greatest industrial dispute" ever in higher education if changes to pensions are forced through.
UCU members supported moves towards industrial action on two fronts at the union's higher education conference in Manchester this week.
The UCU will ballot for a national strike, to be held in the autumn term, if employers refuse to negotiate on avoiding redundancies.
The conference also heard the results of a ballot on the Universities Superannuation Scheme, in which 96 per cent of respondents backed the UCU's proposed changes above those of employers, which include scrapping the final-salary structure for new entrants.
With the USS' decision-making body deadlocked, independent chair Sir Andrew Cubie may use his casting vote to push through one side's plans next month.
Alan Carr, vice-president of the Open University UCU and a USS negotiator, said a message should be sent to the employers and to Sir Andrew on his casting vote.
"Mess with our pensions and you will face the greatest industrial dispute there has ever been in higher education," he told the conference.
Michael MacNeil, the UCU's head of higher education, added: "If (employers) continue to refuse talks on a national framework for job security, or if they try to force changes to the USS, my advice to you couldn't be straighter: go back to your branches and prepare for action."
The conference heard that 35,078 people who were members of the USS and the UCU were consulted by email about the proposals.
The scheme has a total of about 120,000 active members who are paying in. From 21,214 responses, 96.2 per cent supported the UCU's proposals.
A spokesman for the Employers Pensions Forum said that the result of the UCU poll was not a surprise, adding that the respondents represented less than a tenth of the total 250,000 members of the scheme, including those who are collecting pensions.
"UCU claims to represent all these people," the spokesman said. He added that the union's proposals "do not go far enough to address the scheme's problems".
The UCU also said institutions had plans for about 2,300 compulsory redundancies.
At a meeting with the unions last week, the Universities and Colleges Employers Association refused to discuss a national job security deal or to increase its 0.4 per cent pay offer for next year. Many institutions are loath to rule out redundancies in the midst of government funding cuts that now total £1.1 billion.
That means higher education is likely to face its first national strike since 2006 in the autumn term, bringing disruption to teaching just as new students start their courses.
However, there was evidence of division within the UCU in a motion criticising the higher education committee for not moving more swiftly to industrial action on jobs and pay. The motion was narrowly defeated by 90 votes to 87.
In her keynote speech, Sally Hunt, the UCU general secretary, warned that the "next wave of (government) cuts will test this union's organisation to the limit".