Famous museums such as the Ashmolean in Oxford, the Hunterian in Glasgow, the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge and the Manchester Museum are run by universities that are struggling to cope with extra students and poor resources, according to a report published yesterday by the Museums Association.
Until now a scheme known as Special Factor Funding has earmarked funds for the upkeep of 22 university collections within the annual university grant allocation. According to Mark Turner, director of the Museums' Association, the new Higher Education Funding Councils are likely to abolish the scheme.
'Without a new funding formula for university collections some of this country's oldest and most respected museums will be in danger,' he said.
'Officially the funding councils won't admit it because it is under review, but there's little doubt that the formula is going. And that would mean it's up to the universities to allocate funds. But the Government's policy of expanding student numbers is putting an intolerable strain on university resources, so things that are regarded as peripheral, such as museums, are in danger.'
Professor Christopher White, director of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, said his museum would 'face a crisis of monumental proportions' if no suitable funding formula were to replace the present one. The Ashmolean and two other Oxford University museums currently share more than pounds 2m between them from the scheme.
Mr Turner said famous museums such as the Ashmolean would be unlikely to close because the public outcry would be so great. But there were other less well known collections that were in great danger, such as the Museum of Rural English Life in Reading.
Collections held by museums are private property. Newcastle University recently threatened to close the Hancock Museum, an internationally respected natural history museum that does not receive money from the funding scheme.
'That case shows the potential problems that lie ahead unless the Government takes measures to ensure that these national institutions are preserved,' Mr Turner said.
A spokesman for the funding councils said they were reviewing their policies and had not come to a decision about museum funding. They would probably keep the scheme 'to a minimum' and look at each case individually. They could not make public the amount earmarked for museums this year.
The report, Museums and Higher Education, also calls on the new Department of National Heritage and the Department for Education to undertake a joint nationwide audit of all university- held collections.
Recent surveys revealed that significant material was 'neglected, forgotten and rapidly deteriorating'.
It urges the Department of National Heritage to set up a fund to encourage the transfer of neglected material to other universities better equipped to conserve and display items.
It also expresses concern about universities selling off historic collections at auction.
The Royal Holloway and Bedford New College in Egham, Surrey, has decided to sell three of its most prized paintings - a Turner, a Constable and a Gainsborough - at public auction to pay for essential building works. The paintings are expected to fetch up to pounds 20m.
Museums and Higher Education; The Museums Association, 42 Clerkenwell Close, London EC1R OPA; pounds 5.