Universities face a choice of fates akin to being swallowed by a fish, sat on by a rhinoceros or bitten by a crocodile as two crucial funding decisions loom.
In a speech last week at the annual conference of the Association of University Administrators, Sir Alan Langlands, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, drew comparisons with the terrible dilemmas set out in John Burningham's children's book Would You Rather ... (1978).
He discussed what may happen if the government's Comprehensive Spending Review and the Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance led by Lord Browne of Madingley deliver bleak outcomes, although he added that his thoughts were "speculation".
"My point is that the sector is going to have to make some of those tough choices," he said. "Would you rather, in terms of public good, put teaching first or research first, if there were a limited pool of money and you had to cut back on one?"
On the publications of the CSR and the Browne review, he said: "Two key questions are going to be answered by the autumn. That, for me, is the time to take a deep breath and say: 'Have we got enough here to continue broadly along the same lines we are at the moment in teaching and learning, research and knowledge transfer?'?"
Sir Alan, speaking at the University of Warwick, told the audience that he was taking a "glass half-full" approach, stressing the sector's "very strong economic case" for continued public support.
But he urged caution on the Browne review, arguing that the two key factors for universities were "additionality and conditionality".
He explained: "Any funding that comes from increasing fees and changing the student-support system: it is funding to replace a reduction in public funding. It is not additional funding. I am guessing, but I think that would be the reality of the situation."
On conditionality, Sir Alan said: "I am sure any changes will come with strings attached ... You already have the government talking about needs-blind admissions. You have the Conservatives talking about quality indicators and worrying about contact hours."
The CSR will set departmental spending limits between 2011 and 2014. Sir Alan, a former chief executive of the NHS, noted that for every £4 of current public spending, £1 is borrowed. He put that in the context of Hefce's £7.3 billion allocation to higher education institutions for 2010-11.
"About £1.8 billion of that has been borrowed by the taxpayer in order that they could give it to us," he said. "That doesn't feel like a very comfortable place to be."