The UK's biggest lecturers' union is threatening "sustained and seriously disruptive" industrial action to derail university admissions and examinations after losing a bitter battle over pensions.
The University and College Union will again ballot members for industrial action over the Universities Superannuation Scheme to gauge their willingness to sacrifice pay in lengthy strikes starting this summer.
Higher education employers won their battle over the USS at a meeting of the scheme's joint negotiating committee last week, when Sir Andrew Cubie, its independent chair, favoured their plans - including phasing out final-salary benefits - over the UCU's.
Sally Hunt, the UCU general secretary, says in an email to members that the new ballot "will spell out proposals for sustained industrial action during 2011-12 starting with admissions and asking everyone including external examiners to take part in a rolling programme".
The UCU has called a special meeting of its higher education committee on 23 May to decide whether to cancel a planned one-day strike on 24 May in favour of a ballot for sustained action.
Michael MacNeil, the UCU's head of higher education, says in an email to branches that the union's pensions group "believes that we are now at the point where only sustained and seriously disruptive industrial action will achieve a fair settlement".
The £30 billion USS has about 120,000 members, mainly academics and senior administrators in pre-1992 universities.
In a separate move affecting new universities, the UCU will also take joint action with the teaching unions over the government's planned changes to the Teachers' Pensions Scheme, which also caters for academics in post-92 institutions.
Under the employers' changes, the USS will in future have a two-tier structure. Existing members will remain on final-salary benefits, but new entrants will be placed on lower-value career average revalued earnings (Care) schemes.
The UCU says the switch to Care will leave the average new academic £120,000 worse off, making higher education less attractive to new recruits.
It also fears that employers will aim to transfer current members to the new scheme.
The USS Care pension compares unfavourably with the Care scheme adopted by the Civil Service. While the latter has a combined 1/43.5 accrual rate (the proportion of average earnings awarded for each year of service), the USS scheme will have a combined accrual rate of 1/64.
Some observers believe the UCU should have proposed a better-value Care scheme for new and current members at the start of negotiations, rather than trying to defend final-salary deals.
In its last-minute counter-proposals, the UCU said it would accept a Care scheme for new members only on a 1/65 accrual rate plus a 3/65 lump sum.
An Employers Pensions Forum spokesman said it hoped UCU members "will recognise that a good outcome has been achieved and will not wish to consider action that could seriously damage students".