Union leaders are predicting a "winter of discontent" in higher education, with a national strike and disruption by lecturers and support staff over pay and conditions.
Lecturers' union Natfhe and five other unions have overwhelmingly rejected the 3 per cent pay offer.
Natfhe general secretary Paul Mackney said industrial action will make higher education a key issue in the next general election.
A one-day national strike is planned for December, followed by a campaign of industrial action.
Natfhe members voted more than 2:1 to reject the offer and a similar number supported strike action in an informal poll of almost 2,000 members. A strike ballot will take place next month.
Unison is balloting its 60,000 higher education members after an informal poll showed that 83 per cent were in favour of industrial action. More than 70 per cent of Unison members have rejected their 3 per cent pay offer and more than 90 per cent rejected attempts by employers to end national bargaining over conditions.
MSF, the T&G, the Educational Institute of Scotland and the GMB have all also rejected their pay offers.
Natfhe and Unison are calling for 10 per cent pay increases as a move towards redressing the 30 per cent shortfall identified by the Bett report.
"Our people have delivered on widening participation and expanded higher education while their workloads have increased mercilessly," said Mr Mackney. "At the same time, lecturers' pay has fallen well below all comparators: it is time to put this right and it is time to make these messages clear as the election looms."
Mr Mackney said Natfhe was optimistic in the face of growing concerns over delays in announcing the settlement for universities for years two and three of the comprehensive spending review.
"If the government were to shift higher education money somewhere else it would be extremely short-sighted. The issue is climbing up the political top ten - with the Liberal Democrats and the cock-eyed scheme from the Conservatives giving it a degree of priority."
Natfhe members are also angry with the Universities and Colleges Employers Association's "refusal to negotiate on conditions and their refusal to agree on the working parties to discuss reform to the national contract, or new legal rights on parental leave, or part-time staff".
Declan Leydon, assistant director of UCEA, declined to comment.