Lecturers' union Natfhe could pull out of pay negotiations across the country if Bournemouth University imposes a package that the union claims would undermine the national framework.
Bournemouth is set to become the first new university to bring in a pay structure after a national pay spine and framework were hammered out this year.
The university says its proposals are in accordance with the national framework, but the union disputes this.
"The eyes of the whole union are focused on Bournemouth," said Andy Pike, a national official for higher education at Natfhe. "As it stands, the Bournemouth proposals would set a very bad precedent for the sector as a whole."
Gillian Slater, who recently announced her resignation as Bournemouth's vice-chancellor, represented vice-chancellors on the national negotiating team responsible for shaping the pay framework.
Professor Slater said the deal planned at Bournemouth was in accordance with the national framework and that she was confident it would be accepted by staff.
A statement from the university said that it was still speaking to Natfhe and public service union Unison with a view to reaching an agreement and declined to comment further.
Mr Pike warned that the Bournemouth package would see principal lecturers £3,000 worse off and senior lecturers £1,500 poorer than under the union's preferred model.
However, the Bournemouth package would offer staff at the lower end of the pay scale a better deal. "The university is cleverly pitching academic against non-academic staff," Mr Pike said.
Bournemouth is also proposing to reduce holidays for academic staff to bring them in line with non-academic staff holidays.
"The university does need to comply with equal-pay legislation on this, but it should harmonise up, not down," Mr Pike said. "It would be a disaster if equality in the workplace meant lower pay and worse conditions."
The university also plans to lift the cap on teaching hours, leaving academics less time for research, according to Natfhe.
Mr Pike added that Natfhe membership, which had been low at Bournemouth, had risen by 20 per cent in the past two months and that the union was close to representing the majority of academic staff.
In November, the union reported that it had organised its biggest ever meeting at Bournemouth, when "around 115" lecturers met to discuss tactics in the mounting dispute. "The branch unanimously agreed to ballot for industrial action if the employer attempted to impose new grading arrangements or new contracts," Mr Pike said.
The university plans to impose the new settlement on January 1. The union is waiting to see if the university confirms this over the next couple of weeks. If it does, Natfhe will seek a ballot.