Oxford, Cambridge and other British universities said Tuesday that the government's plan to cut hundreds of millions of pounds (dollars) from their funding would put their world-class reputations in jeopardy.
Unlike most elite institutions in the United States, Britain's top schools rely almost exclusively on taxpayers keeping them going.
But strapped for cash, the government has slashed its higher education budget by 600 million pounds (nearly $1 billion) over the next three years — a figure British media say comes to a 12 percent reduction when combined with other cuts.
British universities have little chance of raising big funds on their own: Student fees by law are capped at about 4,000 pounds a year, and endowments generally are no more than modest.
The Russell Group, representing 20 leading research universities, said the cuts 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."
"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," according to an editorial by the group's Chairman Michael Arthur and Director Wendy Platt, published in The Guardian newspaper.
In defending its decision, the government noted that higher education funding had risen by 25 percent since 1997. Higher Education Minister David Lammy said now was time "to look to the higher education sector to tighten its belt."
Struggling with massive deficits from trying to bail out crisis-hit banks, the government has promised painful cuts across the public sector. Universities would be unlikely to get much more out of the rival Conservatives should they win upcoming elections. The opposition party has promised even harsher austerity measures.
But is Oxford University — the English-speaking world's oldest university — really on the verge of a "meltdown," as described by Arthur and Platt in their editorial?
The institution, which developed rapidly in the 12th century, wouldn't say which, if any, of its programs might be axed if there is a funding shortfall. And Cambridge University, which recently celebrated its 800th birthday, has said only that it shares the concerns raised in the editorial and would seek to minimize the impact of any cuts.
One commentator said the universities might be overstating their case — but that the concerns were real.
"The language is extremely strong," said Phil Baty, the deputy editor of the Times Higher Education Magazine. But "if that's what it takes to make the wider public sit down and take notice, then it's worth shouting from the rooftops."
He said many universities were already making sacrifices due to funding shortfalls — such as the University of Gloucestershire in southwest England, which has had to sell its new London campus. The University of Cumbria may also have to sell, or at least stop using, its campus in the northwest town of Ambleside.
Other universities have scaled back certain programs, especially in foreign languages.
Even the gothic architecture that marks many venerable universities is at risk, as the government has cut funding for maintaining historic buildings. "You may see some crumbling," Baty said.
On the Net:
Russell Group's editorial in The Guardian: http://bit.ly/756FTB
(This version CORRECTS spelling of Russell Group in graf 5.)
© Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.