Lecturers' unions organising a UK-wide pay strike on Tuesday have won the backing of many MPs.
Students are likely to be caught in the middle of the dispute
More than 120 MPs, including members of the education select committee, signed a motion backing calls for more pay.
The unions, Natfhe and the AUT, say universities are getting £3.4bn extra from top-up fees and other funding.
The employers say academics' pay is not uncompetitive and that the unions are embarking on industrial action even before this year's pay round has begun.
They say the four unions representing support staff have yet to lodge pay claims this year.
After the one-day strike the unions have instructed members to pursue "indefinite action short of a strike" including boycotts of student assessment and exams and staff appraisals, and a refusal to cover for absent colleagues.
The AUT (Association of University Teachers) said it had been sent a letter from the chair of the employers' organisation offering meetings at the end of March and April.
"I can confirm that it is the employers' intention to make an offer at an early stage in these negotiations," he wrote.
AUT general secretary Sally Hunt said the letter was "baffling".
"The employers have yet to make any kind of pay offer at all and until they do so the industrial action will continue as planned," she said.
"If the employers know they are going to make an offer at these meetings why don't they do it now so that millions of students do not have to suffer?"
Higher pay for staff was one of the arguments the government advanced when it was trying to get its highly controversial top-up fees legislation through Parliament in 2004.
The two unions - whose members have voted for a merger - are angry that universities deny having said they would spend at least a third of the money on staff pay and conditions.
The Universities and Colleges Employers' Association says that well over one third of the sector's new income from fees in 2006-07 is expected to be spent on staff pay and conditions.
But this will include extra staff, higher pension contributions and the cost of pay modernisation, as well as pay increases from this August.
It says the unions' claim would involve rises of 20%-33%, which would cost more than half the extra for across-the-board pay increases alone.
The employers say national statistics on hours and earnings show academics earned an average of £40,657 in 2004-05, compared with averages of £28,210 for all employees and £36,894 for all professional staff.
The unions reacted furiously.
They said the most recent figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency showed that in only 10 out of 170 institutions did academic staff earn an average of more than £40,000.
The overall average, they said, was actually £35,773.