Members of the UCU lecturers' union have voted for a ballot on industrial action targeting university exams and admissions in a row over pensions.
Delegates at the UCU annual congress backed a motion calling for a ballot on "a major programme of sustained and disruptive industrial action".
It says pensions changes will leave new staff up to £120,000 worse off.
University employers say the scheme alterations are needed as costs rise because people are living longer.
The union lost a vote on the changes at the University Superannuation Scheme (USS) negotiating committee in May.
It is fighting against a shift to a career average scheme for new entrants, as well as changes to pensions entitlements for staff over the age of 55 who are made redundant.
The union has already held strikes on the issue, and a ballot was not technically necessary.
But a spokesman said it was important to consult members and check that there was an appetite for serious and sustained action.
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the UCU - full name: the University and College Union - told the BBC earlier that staff may "withdraw labour" to delay the process of awarding degrees and making offers to prospective students.
Ms Hunt told the BBC the proposal was for "action short of a strike".
"I don't believe that a one-day strike will make the difference here," she said.
"I think it will be serious and I think will have to be sustained... I think it's necessary if we're going to get the employers to shift."
Action could be focused on tasks such as marking and external examination, as well as vetting applications for university places, she said.
This year's finals are already taking place, so are unlikely to be targeted, but the union said "significant disruption" could occur from the autumn if members back industrial action.
This could affect students applying to start university in 2012, and the UCU has not ruled out an impact on next year's finals.
The UCU's battle over the £30bn USS scheme, which is open to staff at universities founded before 1992 and has nearly 140,000 active members, has lasted several years.
The union has gained concessions, including the retention of a final salary scheme for existing members, but says the proposed scheme for new entrants is not generous enough.
It also wants to retain the right to a full pension for lecturers over 55 who are made redundant, and fears final salary benefits will eventually be phased out.
Under the changes, which USS says are to come into effect in the autumn, contributions to the final salary scheme will rise from 6.35% to 7.5% of income, and the retirement age will increase from 60 to 65.
New entrants will be offered a career average scheme, under which they would contribute 6.5% of their income, and accrue 1/64 of their average income for every year worked.
'Attractive and affordable'
UCU negotiators sit on a joint committee which makes decisions for the pension scheme.
They had blocked the changes by refusing to attend meetings and make them quorate, until they were threatened with legal action - which they described as "bullying".
In May, they attended the committee, and its chair, Sir Andrew Cubie, made the casting vote in favour of the changes.
The Employers Pension Forum - which brings together higher education employers - has not commented on possible future industrial action.
But when the vote took place in May it said the "moderate changes" would "enable USS to remain sustainable, attractive and affordable for all: employers and members, current and future".
When UCU members held a strike in March, EPF chairman Professor Brian Cantor said employers were "disappointed" by the action.
He defended the changes as a "response to the increasing costs to the scheme from improved longevity".
Prof Cantor said the retention of a final salary pension for all existing USS members was an exceptionally good benefit and that the career average scheme for future employees was in line with what looked set to become the norm in all sectors.
Staff at further education colleges and new universities are eligible to join the Teachers' Pensions Scheme, rather than USS.
On Sunday, they are likely to consider joint action with teaching unions over possible changes to the scheme, UCU said.
Members of the National Union of Teachers and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers are currently balloting their members for strike action.