By Hannah Richardson
BBC News education and family reporter
Universities have warned of financial 'meltdown'
The UK's universities are facing the "bleakest time since the Thatcher cuts of the 1980s", warns the chairman of a group of leading institutions.
Leeds University vice chancellor and Russell Group chairman, Michael Arthur, said universities could be forced to close, along with many courses.
The lecturers' union, the UCU, said the cuts could mean 9,000 job losses by 2013 and far bigger class sizes.
Ministers say the savings will not harm frontline teaching.
Universities are facing cuts of more than £900m over the next three years.
And higher education groups have used forecasts from the Institute of Fiscal Studies to argue that they are likely to suffer from even deeper public spending cuts in the future.
Professor Arthur said: "If that occurs then it will lead to closures of universities, closures of courses and that inevitably means that we will not be able to offer the same number of places that we currently offer."
There have been reports that up to 30 universities could face closure as a result of a series of cuts announced before Christmas.
Professor Arthur, and Russell Group director general Wendy Piatt, warned in a letter to the Guardian: "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 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.
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.
But Professor Arthur predicted that the universities most at risk would be the less-well funded, mainly teaching institutions that had helped ministers towards their goal of widening out participation in higher education to those from non-traditional backgrounds.
Nonetheless, he said Leeds University was facing cuts of 10% from its general day-to-day budget, he said, and that this was representative of similar universities across the UK.
He said there were already significant funding issues across the sector as vice-chancellors sought to make efficiency savings and prepare for the cuts ahead.
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.
Higher education minister David Lammy said spending on frontline teaching would be protected by savings on buildings 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.