The national arbitration service has been called in to help break the deadlock between the lecturers' unions and the employers ahead of next week's formal pay talks.
But even if the parties can finally agree to meet for talks as planned on April 25, hopes of an end to the continuing industrial dispute in time to prevent serious disruption to students' May and June exams looked doomed this week as unions and employers remained poles apart on pay.
The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service was called in after informal "talks about talks" between the unions and employers broke down again this week. A meeting on April 4 had also ended in stalemate.
The Association of University Teachers and lecturers' union Natfhe are boycotting students' exams and assessments to press their claim for a pay rise of 23 per cent over three years.
But the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association, which has so far offered 6 per cent over two years, insists that the unions must suspend their boycott before they can be allowed to enter the formal pay talks, even if it is halted for the duration of any formal talks only. The AUT and Natfhe refuse to do so without first being made a credible offer and, they say, 6 per cent is nowhere near that.
The challenge for Acas is to get the academic unions and employers round the negotiating table while avoiding anything that looks like a climbdown by either side. If it fails, next Tuesday's meeting will go ahead between employers, the non-academic campus unions and the Educational Institute of Scotland.
In a brief agreed statement, the AUT, Natfhe and Ucea said they had agreed to "invite Acas to facilitate discussions between Ucea, the AUT and Natfhe with a view to a resumption of full JNCHES (Joint Negotiating Committee for Higher Education Staff) negotiations at the earliest opportunity".
However, the gulf between the unions' pay demands and what the employers say is affordable was highlighted by an agreement to set up urgent meetings between union officials and Ucea staff to discuss "higher education funding".
The unions say that their claim is fully costed and is affordable because the sector will receive an unprecedented £3.5 billion funding boost over the three years that follow the introduction of top-up tuition fees, which will come into effect later this year.
The employers have argued that much of the additional income, which will vary dramatically between institutions, is already earmarked for the pay upgrades that were agreed under the historic 2004 reforms of career structures, for increased staffing levels and for student bursaries.
It is likely that the employers' 6 per cent offer - already roundly rejected by all the campus unions - will be improved at the meeting on April 25. But lecturing union sources suggest that offering an extra 1 or 2 per cent in the negotiations will not be enough to end the dispute.
Plans to escalate the industrial action to include more one-day strikes are already being considered at both unions.