Australian academics are demanding a 24 per cent pay rise and are preparing to take industrial action next semester in support of the claim.
The National Tertiary Education Union said the salary increase, to be spread over three years, was "affordable, reasonable and necessary" if staff were to maintain their position relative to the overall workforce.
The salaries and related costs for academics and general staff constituted, on average, about 60 per cent of university budgets. They currently absorb A$5.5 billion (£2 billion) a year of higher education spending, and an increase of the size sought by the NTEU would add a further A$1.3 billion between 2003 and 2006.
Vice-chancellors are expected to reject the salary and conditions claim when negotiations resume, arguing that universities cannot afford a rise of this magnitude.
Under Australia's enterprise bargaining system, local union branches negotiate directly with their university managements. They will use the above figures in calculating the costs to each institution of the wage claim.
The NTEU national executive monitors negotiations and must approve all agreements. It is expected to accept lower rises for universities that have little or no money to spare.
According to the union's analyses, the University of New South Wales tops the list of Australia's tertiary institutions in terms of the money it raises from tuition fees and other charges, generating more than A$160 million a year. Melbourne University is second with A$131 million and Monash University is third with A$119 million.
The UNSW has already offered its staff a rise of up to 19 per cent although the union believes the Sydney-based university - and the other older research-intensive institutions - could easily pay more.
During the last round of bargaining, the NTEU demanded an 18 per cent increase but finally settled on a 12 per cent minimum across the sector.
The latest claim could result in better-off universities accepting a 20 per cent rise, with the smaller and poorer institutions agreeing to 15-16 per cent.
The different outcomes in previous rounds has led to a growing gap between the salaries paid to staff at some institutions and those on the same classification level at other universities.