A muddle by the chancellor could force university museums to charge entry fees, according to the Manchester Museum.
Museum director Tristram Besterman has complained to ministers that university museums were overlooked in the budget when Gordon Brown announced that national museums and galleries would be able to reclaim VAT and would no longer need to charge entry fees. This is despite 16 university museums holding collections formally recognised by the government as being of national and international importance. These include the world's oldest public museum, the Ashmolean in Oxford.
"We don't want to break the free access tradition," said Mr Besterman. "But we're frustrated that through an administrative oversight, we're placed in the position that we would need to introduce a charge to put us on an equal footing with other free museums."
He said that the University of Manchester's vice-chancellor, Sir Martin Harris, had been in talks with culture secretary Chris Smith and higher education minister Baroness Blackstone, and the university was confident of getting a resolution in the new Finance Bill that did not involve entry charges.
The Museums Association has pledged its support to the university museums' claim and has said that significant sums of money could be involved. But director Mark Taylor believes the chancellor's decision was not an oversight. "It was difficult enough getting the national museums' VAT reclaimed," he said.
An exemption for local authorities has meant that local government-run museums have always been able to recover VAT.
• Oxford University is rethinking proposals for a paying visitor centre in the Bodleian Library following protests by staff and local residents.
The university announced it had temporarily withdrawn its planning application for a new visitors' entrance to the library, adding: "We are taking a great deal of care to find a proposal which balances the operational needs of a working library with efforts to provide well-managed access to an important heritage site".
The scheme was designed to alleviate noise and congestion around the library.