Fine art conservation skills are in urgent need of care and attention. "Something that worked perfectly well is being brought to its knees," warns Caroline Villers of the department of conservation and technology at the Courtauld Institute, London.
She added: "The future for the funding of conservation courses is not good."
The conservation department at the Courtauld is one of only three in the United Kingdom, and its three-year postgraduate fine art conservation course, set up in 1976, is the longest established course of its kind in Europe.
"The expansion in 1976 was a direct response to the identification by the Government of a need for conservators," explained Ms Villers. "Unfortunately this was not met by the creation of additional jobs. Now we do not get the feeling from Government that conservation is at all a priority, despite the fact of the presence of a heritage department."
The funding crisis comes as research in the relatively young discipline of conservation is "expanding at an exponential rate".
At the Courtauld, where research is applied mainly to refining the understanding of materials and procedures, postgraduates continue to make a major contribution.
The department takes four students a year, whose backgrounds range from history of art to fine art to science. Fees are Pounds 2,430 per annum, and two bursaries are available for students from England.
The department is also in the unusual position of being a technical department in an arts institution. Maintenance and service contracts are its major funding problem, and it cannot afford to repair expensive equipment.
"We have to balance staff, library and technology. Other departments here have just staff and library," she explains. "We end up having to apply for individual grants."
Despite the lack of cash, however, the department will not charge for its skills.
"When restoring paintings for other organisations," said Ms Villers, "we prefer to choose organisations with limited resources. Over my dead body will we charge for the work the Courtauld does."
On the other hand, the University of Cambridge's Hamilton Kerr Institute, affiliated to the Fitzwilliam Museum, is funded by its own endowment and income from commercial work.
Yet, says director Ian Mc Clure: "We rely on grants for research work and have noticed competition becoming much greater in recent years. Also, as part of the museum we are struggling due to the pecking order. We can't apply to the same charity as, say, the museum's reading room."
Hamilton-Kerr has started trying to fund students itself. "One charity has given us money for five years which we can spread between four students.
"We are concerned to offer money to those who are not eligible for bursaries. Also those who had their own income were often a particular sort of person drawn from a very narrow pool. But everyone hopes for a Scottish student, funded separately by the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council."
Conservators have traditionally gone on from university to a one-year internship with a museum or collection - paying on average Pounds 12,000 in the United Kingdom and Pounds 18,000 in the United States - which they hope will consolidate their skills and lead to a job.
But as the pool of such opportunities dries up, and internships frequently go to those a year or more out of university, Hamilton Kerr now takes interns itself.
Mr Mc Clure said: "What should be a progressive training is being replaced by this nightmare of trying to get funds.
"The Tate Gallery didn't even advertise its funded internship this year due to lack of cash. Increasingly work is offered to graduates without pay."
Mr Mc Clure says the ultimate irony is that, due to the Government's emphasis on vocational courses, other universities are now planning to offer new undergraduate conservation courses.
He said: "The newer universities, such as De Montfort and Lincoln, are jumping on the bandwagon and will be releasing around 20 graduates when ten or so postgraduates a year are already finding it hard to get work."
Tim Davenport, senior lecturer on the University of Northumbria at Newcastle's two-year conservation of fine art MA, echoes the concern. Student finance is our biggest problem," he insists.
The department has two bursaries for an annual intake of 12 students, who each pay Pounds 2,490 a year.
The materials budget has been frozen at Pounds 7,000 "for as long as I can remember", and Mr Davenport is waiting to see whether any money at all will be forthcoming this year.
He said:"In the past we were quite successful in getting 50 per cent matching funding from the conservation unit of the Museums and Galleries Commission.
"But we're stuck if anything needs replacing, such as an excellent 1950s X-ray machine we were given which will cost Pounds 50-60,000 to repair. The pressure is on to admit more students with the same money and number of staff."