Cambridge University could be excluded from the government's elite tier of research universities after academics dismissed proposals to reform the way the institution is run.
Vice-chancellor Alec Broers and vice-chancellor elect Alison Richard are frustrated at the pace of modernisation. Academics voted against proposals to extend management powers of the vice-chancellor and to include external officials on the university council.
Proposals in last month's white paper said a handful of world-class UK universities would be given extra funding to ensure they could compete globally. The government is taking a keen interest in Cambridge's reform process and ministers are believed to have told senior management its place in the elite is jeopardised by the way it is run.
Last year, Cambridge was almost £10 million in deficit. It also attracted government attention with the failed implementation of the Capsa accounting system.
Sir Alec said he recognised there were concerns over proposed changes, but added: "Good governance is essential for Cambridge, and is a prerequisite of any internationally competitive institution. We must continue to move forward and ensure that the university can conduct its business in a way that equips it for the challenges of the modern world."
The university council was hoping to complete the reforms, especially those extending the vice-chancellor's authority, before Professor Richard takes over in October.
She told The THES : "I believe that if Cambridge is to maintain its world-class status it must have not only the academic and assistant staff but also the governance and management arrangements to match that aspiration."
Council will meet later this month to discuss the results and what action to take. It is unclear whether it will press ahead with the changes or further ballots.
Less than a third of the 3,200 academics eligible to vote did so. The results of all six ballots were close. Proposed changes to the vice-chancellor's role were defeated by just 64 votes.
Members agreed proposals to increase the number of pro vice-chancellors (currently two) and to widen membership of Regent House to include all university employees. The number of people needed to call a ballot was increased to 25.
Stephen Cowley, a member of the university's board of scrutiny, said many academics had complained about the complicated and closed nature of the ballot papers. "The proposals were badly drafted and ambiguous," he said.
He called on the council to delay further changes until the new vice-chancellor arrived. He added: "We need reform, but within our democratic traditions, to be more effective."
Pro vice-chancellor Malcolm Grant, who is spearheading the plans for reform, said he was deeply disappointed by the ballot.
A spokesman for the Department for Education and Skills said: "Cambridge's governance arrangements are entirely a matter for them."