Academics are also threatening to leave government plans to expand student numbers in tatters, in pursuit of a pay rise of at least 10 per cent.
The Association of University Teachers is to vote on a range of industrial action designed to pressure employers and the Government to narrow the gap between lecturers' pay and that of professionals such as doctors, dentists and civil servants.
Last night David Triesman, AUT general secretary, said academics felt "bitter, angry and cheated" after 18 years of "inadequate" pay deals. He said: "The big risk, in my judgement, is that by the time we get through to clearing it's very likely that people will not participate in the admissions process. A senior higher education minister once told me that academics so loved their own research and contact with their students you could get them to eat the bark off a tree before they will protest. We are more or less in that position. It's true that people will put up with a lot if they are allowed to teach and research, but we are beginning to lose patience."
The union's national executive is proposing a motion to authorise a "sustained campaign of industrial action which may include one-day strikes, boycotts of examinations and boycotts of admissions".
This could cause massive unprecedented disruption for the thousands of students who go into clearing: the annual scramble to match students who have missed their grades with spare university places.
The AUT's annual meeting on Thursday will hear calls for a pay claim of up to 40 per cent as academics try to redress the balance with other professions. They say academic pay has fallen by up to 35 per cent behind comparable professions.
Lecturers want their pay decided by an independent pay review body, and are applying pressure to the inquiry into academic pay and conditions chaired by Sir Michael Bett, which is due to report later this year.
At present the starting salary for lecturers with a PhD, usually boasting several years' research or part-time teaching experience, is pounds 16,600 - roughly the same as ordinary graduates can expect for their first job in industry.