The first strike action for five years by university staff looks set to go ahead this week, as both sides involved in the row over pension changes remain in deadlock.

The Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) says that the Employers Pensions Forum (EPF) has rejected an offer of ACAS talks to resolve the ongoing dispute about reform of the university pension fund.

But the EPF, which negotiates on behalf of the universities, insists that the amendments still represent “a remarkably good deal” for the fund’s members.

The plans would see a career average scheme – along the lines recommended by Lord Hutton last week for the wider public sector – imposed for new members only, while existing members would retain their final salary pensions. However, existing staff will see their retirement age and personal contributions increase.

EPF chair, Professor Brian Cantor said: “An enormous amount of work has gone into the development of this package of reforms. These changes were approved by the Joint Negotiating Committee in July 2010, and then by the USS Trustee Board, both of which involved full UCU representation. Since then UCU has repeatedly failed to engage in the established process for agreeing scheme changes.”

The union has planned strikes in Scotland on Thursday 17 March, in Wales on Friday 18 March, and in Northern Ireland on Monday 21 March. Staff in England will walk out on Tuesday 22 March and again on Thursday 24 March. Over one million students at 63 UK universities will be affected.

UCU general secretary, Sally Hunt, said: “Decent pensions are essential if the UK has any interest in retaining its best and brightest; they are not an optional extra. UCU members are prepared to take their first national strike action for five years because they see their pensions as deferred pay.

“Their pensions compensate for the lower salaries they receive carrying out research and teaching in universities than they would get if they chose to use their highly-specialised knowledge and skills elsewhere.”