Universities want ministers to withdraw plans for funding cuts
Leaders of the UK's most prestigious universities have warned that government plans to cut funding will lead to a higher education "meltdown".
In an article for the Guardian, the Russell Group said the gold standard education they offer would be reduced to one of "bronze or worse".
Universities are facing cuts of more than £900m over the next three years, and fear worse is still to come.
The government said funding for frontline teaching was protected.
The strongly worded
article written by the university leaders is intended as a dire warning
against forcing universities to lose funding in public spending cuts after the general election.
It said: "It has taken more than 800 years to create one of the world's greatest education systems and it looks like it will take just six months to bring it to its knees.
"Such huge cuts in university budgets would have a devastating effect not only on students and staff, but also on Britain's international competitiveness, economy and ability to recover from recession."
The Russell Group, which includes Oxford and Cambridge universities as well as Warwick and Glasgow among others, said the upshot would be universities facing the closure of hundreds of courses, with fewer academic staff and bigger classes.
It said reports suggested as many as 30 universities might not survive in their current form if even minimal funding cuts were introduced.
The article also highlighted higher education spending in other countries.
"Nicolas Sarkozy has just announced an investment of 11bn euros in higher education in France, stating he wants 'the best universities in the world'," it said.
"Germany pumped a total of 18bn euros into promoting world-class research alongside university education, while Barack Obama ploughed an additional US$21bn into federal science spending."
'Surprising and misleading'
The article calls for ministers to consider reversing proposed cuts and for assurances no further cuts will be imposed.
"This is a defining moment. If politicians don't act now, they will be faced with meltdown in a sector that is vital to our national prosperity," the letter concluded.
Higher education minister David Lammy said spending on frontline teaching would be protected by savings on building and making efficiency measures.
"The suggestion that the savings we have asked from universities will bring higher education 'to its knees' is as surprising as it is misleading," he said.
Currently around £15bn is invested into higher education every year, he said.
He added that teaching and research funding - even after the £180m efficiency savings and the reductions in December's grant - would grow between 2009/10 and 2010/11.
"It's against a backdrop of hugely successful, record investment - over 25% more today than 1997 - and the resilience within the sector we have nurtured, that we (are) now able to look to the higher education sector to tighten its belt in the coming period," he said.
General secretary of the University and College Union Sally Hunt said her union had already identified over 5,000 jobs at risk in higher education and that it was now looking at thousands more.
"Unless these savage cuts are reversed, we face the very real prospect of many universities being forced to close, over 14,000 staff losing their jobs and some of the biggest class sizes in the world," she said.