Lecturers' leaders have threatened the biggest industrial dispute the sector has seen if employers do not add at least £330 million to the pay budget from 2006-07 - giving staff a minimum 11.4 per cent pay rise.
Lecturers' union Natfhe and the Association of University Teachers confirmed this week that their members had voted seven to one to accept a 3 per cent offer for the 2005-06 academic year.
But unions said their members had simultaneously endorsed the immediate start "of a strategic pay campaign to win real improvements in August 2006", when top-up fees are due to bring millions of pounds of extra cash to the sector.
An early warning shot for a pay campaign could be fired in the form of a joint one-day strike as early as November, by which time the members of both unions are likely to have given the go-ahead for merger.
Natfhe officials said this week that they would demand nothing less than a third of the total £1 billion additional annual income expected from the introduction of top-up fees in 2006-07.
This would amount to at least 11.4 per cent on the annual pay budget of Pounds 2.9 billion, excluding pensions and national insurance contributions. It would add about £4,000 to a senior lecturer's salary of £36,000.
Employers said this week that it was "too early" to talk about sums in relation to pay in 2006-07 as the financial picture was unclear.
Roger Kline, Natfhe's head of universities, said: "When trying to justify the introduction of top-up fees, ministers led university lecturers, MPs and the public to believe that a third of this new income would be used to improve pay. We are going to test their commitment to that."
The AUT-Natfhe merger is expected to be approved in membership ballots by November, with the formal creation of the single union in early 2006.
Natfhe national official Andy Pike said the unions would begin campaigning now, with major rallies in London, Wales and Scotland in November and "possibly a one-day strike".
Malcolm Keight, deputy general secretary of the AUT, said his members'
acceptance of this year's 3 per cent deal "should not be taken to imply that the current pay levels are regarded as satisfactory. The effect of years of neglect have not been resolved."
Jocelyn Prudence, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association, said: "It is too early to comment on Natfhe's reference to one third of top-up fees going towards increases in salaries, as the financial picture for individual institutions is unclear, and is likely to remain that way for some time."