Academics at 69 higher education institutions will start an assessment boycott from 6 November, the University and College Union announced on October.
It may mean students at pre-1992 universities will not be able to sit exams due to be held before Christmas. Nor will they be set any coursework or receive marks back from their tutors.
However, Universities UK has warned that many institutions may implement full-day pay deductions for those taking part in the boycott, saying universities will “take all reasonable steps to mitigate impact on students”.
“Universities would not be able to accept partial performance from staff,” it said.
The action follows a ballot of UCU members about potential industrial action over proposed changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme, in which 87 per cent of members who voted said they backed action short of a strike.
The turnout was 45 per cent – a record-high for a UCU national ballot, the union said.
It follows talks between UCU and the employers’ representatives last week, in which plans were discussed to end the USS final salary scheme and move all active members to a career average scheme with a defined contribution element for higher earners.
The union said it was unhappy that employers had presented their proposals as a fait accompli and had failed to address criticisms of the proposed scheme.
UCU negotiators claimed employers had “failed to provide a guarantee the employers were making any effort to protect the pensions of USS members”.
Sally Hunt, UCU general secretary, said: “The employers failed to convince us of the need for their dramatic changes or the reasons behind the methodology for its deficit reduction plan.
“Their proposals remain full of holes and the information they are apparently relying on to back them up keeps being exposed as misleading.”
The boycott coincides with the next negotiating meeting between universities and UCU on 7 November.
“We hope the employers will come back to the table for genuine negotiations aimed at resolved the enormous gap between our two positions,” said Ms Hunt.
Universities are taking action to close a substantial deficit in the USS, which is likely to be about £8 billion, but could rise to as much as £13 billion if proposals to de-risk the fund’s investment portfolio and adjust longevity assumptions are adopted.
A UUK spokesman said it was “disappointed that the UCU has decided to pursue a damaging course of industrial action aimed directly at disrupting students’ education”.
“Taking industrial action will not make the substantial scheme deficit and the risks to the future viability of the scheme go away,” he said
UUK added that the employers’ proposals for reform offered the best possible deal for employees within the constraints that the USS Trustees have set, while the pension fund had to fill its deficit or it would face action from the Pensions Regulator.
“It has to meet certain minimum levels of funding, a test which it currently fails to the tune of at least £8 billion,” UUK said.
“It is unavoidable that a recovery plan has to be agreed that would remove the deficit over a reasonable period.”