The trade unions were left angry after the first round of pay talks this week as vice-chancellors failed to put an offer on the table but demanded concessions on reforming career structures.
The deadline for a deal is August, and with only two more days of formal negotiations scheduled, the Universities and Colleges Employers'
Association said it wanted to agree plans to "modernise" academics'
job-grading structures and pay scales at the same time.
A union source said it was almost impossible to discuss fundamental changes to their members' career structures without an indication of what sort of pay offer they could take to their members.
Andy Pike, national official for higher education at lecturers' union Natfhe, said: "There were constructive discussions held, but we are disappointed that we haven't had an initial offer. There is a lot of work to be done, and the unions are under increasing pressure from members to deliver something on pay."
At the heart of this year's negotiations - in which Natfhe and the Association of University Teachers are demanding a 28 per cent increase - are plans to modernise the system. The unions and employers have agreed to create a single academic pay spine, but are far from agreement on the number of job grades and pay increments between each grade.
The unions want to make it easier for staff to progress in their careers.
But "the employers want to make it harder to move from the bottom of the career ladder to the top, with more job grades and pay increments", one union source said.
The two camps are far from reaching agreement on the employers' demands to add local flexibility, to introduce supplements to pay higher salaries to staff in shortage subjects and to introduce performance-related pay.
Peter Thorpe of the UCEA said: "We have no sum on what is affordable for the pay deal this year. The unions have helpfully elaborated on their pay claim, and we will not consult vice-chancellors on a formal response."
* The non-academic unions submitted their pay claims this week, demanding a basic salary of £11,000 - the minimum recommended by the Bett committee - and a standardised working week of 35 hours. The claim would bring the hourly rate for support staff to £5.55.