University bosses and union leaders must resolve a "damaging and avoidable impasse" over pensions, universities minister Sam Gyimah has warned, as staff prepared to start strike action in the latest stage of the bitter dispute.
Members of the University and College Union (UCU) are due to begin a wave of walkouts at 64 UK institutions on Thursday after they backed action in an industrial ballot over proposed changes to pensions covered by the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS).
On the eve of the strikes, Mr Gyimah warned a solution needs to be found for the sake of students and the reputation of higher education.
In a tweet referencing an editorial in the Times newspaper, the minister said: "Times Editorial on Uni strikes is spot on. For the sake of students and the reputation of our Universities, @ucu and @UniversitiesUK need to find a way through this damaging and avoidable impasse ASAP."
Tens of thousands of workers are expected to take part in the strikes, according to the UCU, which estimates the action will affect around 1.1 million students.
University employers have called the strike action "disappointing".
The dispute centres on proposals for the future of the USS pension scheme put forward by Universities UK (UUK).
UCU general secretary Sally Hunt said: "We welcome the call from the minister for us and UUK to get back round the table and sort this out.
"We have been asking for talks for weeks, while UUK was trying to spin it as a done deal.
"The minister's voice is one of many now demanding this mess gets sorted and we are happy to meet for meaningful negotiations directly with UUK or through mediation right away."
UUK said that the pension scheme has a deficit of more than £6 billion that cannot be ignored, and there is a legal duty to put a credible plan in place by the summer to reduce the deficit.
A spokesman said UUK had met UCU over 35 times in the last year to discuss reforms.
He said: "UUK remains at the negotiating table, but so far UCU has refused to engage on how best to address the funding challenges facing USS. It is important now that UCU engages on how best to ensure the long-term sustainability of the scheme."
He added that there are scheduled discussions with UCU on key issues with the USS.
The spokesman continued: "The changes proposed will make USS secure and sustainable, safeguarding the future of universities.
"University staff will still have a valuable pension scheme, with employer contributions of 18% of salary, double the private sector average. This makes strike action very disappointing."
Around 16% of academic staff that are UCU members in the 64 institutions affected voted in favour of strike action, according to UUK.
UCU has warned that if the dispute is not resolved, then action could continue, including into the summer exams period.
Ahead of the strikes, Ms Hunt said union officials are meeting on March 2 to discuss the response from universities to the industrial action and warned that if the dispute is not settled then "nothing is off the table".
The union has a mandate to take industrial action up until July 19, which covers the period when exams are being taken by students and marked.
There have been reports that thousands of students have signed petitions demanding compensation from universities for classes lost due to the strikes.
UCU has said it will stage 14 days of action if there is no resolution, starting with a two-day walkout this Thursday and Friday, and continuing with three-day, four-day and five-day strikes into next month.
Other action is likely to include members working to their contracts, meaning they could refuse to cover classes, reschedule classes lost on strike days or undertake voluntary duties.
Hundreds of thousands of university workers are understood to be enrolled in the USS pensions scheme, mainly those working at older institutions established before 1992.