The lecturers' unions are poised to deliver on their threat to "bring universities to a standstill" over pay this year, after indications that their members voted resoundingly in favour of taking industrial action.
The results of ballots by the Association of University Teachers and sister union Natfhe were due after The Times Higher went to press this week. But Natfhe was predicting a clear members' mandate for strike action and a continuous examinations boycott, after a relatively high turn out.
Andy Pike of Natfhe said: "All indications are that Natfhe members have voted in large numbers and they have voted to support industrial action."
The unions are demanding a national pay rise of between 20 and 23 per cent over three years from 2006-07, depending on inflation. They insist that their claim is affordable after the introduction of top-up tuition fees this year.
They say that their joint action, in the year that they merge to form the University and College Union, could hit "millions" of students, hindering their progression and even preventing some from graduating.
The unions promised there would be "chaos", which will be highly politically sensitive in the run up to the new student funding and fees regime in 2006-07.
But Mr Pike offered the employers "one more chance" to prevent the action, if they agreed to resume talks and provide a firm pay offer to negotiate.
Sally Hunt, AUT general secretary, said: "We are confident that our members will give us a clear mandate to take industrial action. The employers must not under-estimate the seriousness of potential industrial action, or the anger our members feel."
The Universities and Colleges Employers' Association said: "The employers remain committed to serious negotiations but the AUT and Natfhe seem to prefer disruption. They have repeatedly rebuffed offers of negotiation if they put plans for industrial action on ice. Institutions will seek to minimise the impact on students, but some could be adversely affected - quite unnecessarily."
Meanwhile, employers appear to be split on plans advocated by some human resources managers to dock the salaries of staff members who participate in the boycott, even if they carry out their other duties as normal.
Last week, George Holmes, vice-chancellor of Bolton University, told staff in a letter that the university "will respect the rights of staff to signal their concerns through appropriate and lawful action" and "will seek to impose no sanctions on staff engaged in trade disputes".