What has got academic gowns in a twist is the gradual working through of the implications of the last Budget for higher education. This imposes a three-year regime of cuts on the universities amounting to 10 per cent in total.
In the light of other curbs on public spending this might not appear draconian, but it comes after years of belt-tightening during which student numbers have doubled, staffing has increased only slowly and government funding per student has already been drastically reduced. According to the unions, the academic workforce has been "mugged" and now faces another round of redundancies as the universities do their sums.
South Bank University is cutting its lecturing force by 84, possibly including around 12 compulsory redundancies. The University of Wales College at Newport, facing a deficit next year, is considering 80 job losses. The University of Westminster has frozen recruitment and is offering staff over 60 early retirement. In Winchester students marched against cuts which they say threaten educational quality. And this is just a snapshot of the universities in serious trouble.
The Higher Education Funding Council for England is charting the inexorable slide of higher education into financial crisis. Mid-year returns show that unless the universities take action now the whole higher education sector will be pounds 17m in the red next year.
For many universities cutting staff is the only immediate option because any other slack has been squeezed out. They have also been hit hard by a change in their capital funding arrangements which has left them seeking private finance for repairs and replacements. The unions and the vice-chancellors are hoping that the department has realised its mistake on this issue at least. "Private finance is fine for student residences but to imagine that it will turn up to replace broken test-tubes and shore up the walls in the physics department is pie-in-the-sky," one union official commented.
Longer-term an increasing number of individual universities are looking at the option of charging students "top-up" or entry fees to boost their income. When this was mooted at the London School of Economics it was voted down, but the idea has not gone away. Birmingham University is considering fees for first-year students from 1997/8.
Fees are firmly on the agenda of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals. Some members are fiercely opposed to the idea on the grounds that fees will deter poorer applicants and mature students from applying. They see a risk of a two-tier system, one for middle-class students whose parents can foot the bill, and one for the rest.
Other vice-chancellors see fees as the only way to maintain quality if thesqueeze continues. The threat is now sufficiently real for the admissions body, Ucas, to have warned prospective students that taking a "year out" this year may be a very bad idea. By the time they take up their place in 1997, Ucas thinks, they may have to pay for it.
In the meantime the universities themselves are wondering whether they can sustain the quality of what is reputed to be a world-class system. If the next round of cuts goes ahead, says David Triesman of the Association of University Teachers, there will be 3,000 job losses next year and perhaps 8,000 over three years.
Because safety concerns limit the size of science and technology classes, the squeeze falls disproportionately on humanities and social science. Increasingly classes are being taken research students working for less than pounds 3 an hour. "We are already hearing of staff-student ratios of 45 and 50 to one in some business and language departments," Mr Triesman says. "Staff morale is falling and quality is being shot to pieces."
It is quality, and the wider threat to the UK's economic well-being, which most concerns Professor David Melville of Middlesex University, vice-chair of the CVCP. "We are now at a crisis point," he says, and he sees no prospect of the Dearing review of higher education having any impact until the year 2000. In the meantime, he says, the latest squeeze could endanger the UK's reputation as a provider of first-class higher education. It is a cut too far.