University employers and union bosses are set to hold fresh talks amid a continuing row over pay, it has been announced.
The University and College Union (UCU) and a number of other trade unions have been running a campaign of industrial action, including national strikes, over a 1% pay rise offered to university staff for the 2013/14 academic year.
UCU, which earlier this week announced plans for a marking boycott if the dispute is not resolved, maintains that the pay offer means their members have faced a 13% pay cut in real terms since October 2008.
The Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) has previously expressed disappointment at the industrial action, saying that the 2013/14 pay rises - which it has said averaged 3% overall - have already been paid, and that pay negotiations for 2014/15 are due to start next month.
In a joint statement, UCU and UCEA said: "UCEA and UCU have agreed to investigate with the other parties to New JNCHES (joint national committee for higher education staff) the prospect of arranging exploratory talks, involving all New JNCHES unions, prior to the first scheduled negotiating meeting of the 2014/15 pay negotiations.
"The purpose of the exploratory talks would be to seek an early positive dialogue on the key issues in the lead-up to the 2014/15 pay round."
The talks will involve the other three unions involved in the dispute - Unite, Unison and EIS in Scotland.
It is understood these discussions will focus on the 2014/15 academic year pay offer.
UCU general secretary Sally Hunt said: "It is in everyone's interests that this dispute is resolved and we will approach any talks positively."
Toni Pearce, president of the National Union of Students (NUS), welcomed news of fresh talks.
"This is incredibly welcome news and will provide some relief to students who are understandably very concerned at the prospect of further disruption," she said.
"Up until now employers have consistently failed to get round the table and negotiate with the staff trade unions, and have risked failing students in the process.
"The prospect of students being punished for others' mistakes by being denied their graduation is absolutely intolerable.
"We now urgently need to see both sides knuckle down at these talks and quickly come to a fair and sustainable settlement."
The NUS's executive committee yesterday passed an emergency motion on UCU's marking boycott, which reaffirmed support for university staff in the dispute.
UCU announced earlier this week that it has given the green light for its members to refuse to mark exam papers and assessments if the pay dispute is not resolved in the next two months.
The move, described by the union as its ''ultimate sanction'', could mean that students are left without the final results they need to gain their degree, and therefore would be unable to graduate.
UCU, along with a number of other unions, has staged three one-day national walkouts as part of the campaign, and has held a series of two-hour strikes aimed at disrupting teaching.