Cambridge University needs to face up to tough decisions about the range of academic work and the future of courses if it is to retain its world-class reputation and address a £71 million funding shortfall, the institution has been warned.
A university panel suggests a radical rethink of the future strategy for the ancient institution - even selling parts of its estate or leasing university space for commercial projects.
Cambridge should also examine the sometimes strained relationship between the university's central authorities and its colleges, says the Board of Scrutiny, ahead of a debate on the university's future next month.
The board has reviewed Cambridge's accounts and concludes that it must "face up to its financial constraints" and prioritise "core areas and those at which it excels".
The board adds: "It is much better to take the necessary hard decisions now rather than have them forced on the university at a later stage." It warns that the increase in undergraduate tuition fees from 2006 should not be seen as a solution to its uncertain financial prospects.
But there is hope that fundraising to coincide with the university's 800th anniversary will ease the financial pressure.
The board will tell the university's governing body in October that Cambridge will have accumulated a £71 million deficit between 2000 and 2007 and that dipping into its £391 million reserves is not a long-term solution.
The Cambridge authorities are expected to propose new financial plans for the university later this year, although it remains to be seen whether they will follow the example of universities elsewhere and opt for course closures.
One source told The Times Higher that the financial situation was difficult "but not life threatening", although some academic departments may be asked to "narrow their range of activities".
According to the board, the proposal to impose a 1 per cent budget cut on all academic schools - except clinical medicine - will not reduce the deficit.
The board's report concludes: "The board welcomes the consultation taking place at school level on such issues as student numbers and the mix between undergraduates and postgraduates as well as between foreign and home students.
"But the board believes that this should only be the beginning and that other options should be the subject of wide-ranging debate. These could include the university-college relationship as well as the disposal of part of the estate and the range of activities of the university and its subsidiaries."
The university could save up to £2.5 million a year if the "overprovision" of teaching and administrative space were reduced.
But the board adds: "If the university were able to let surplus space for commercial use, the financial benefits might be greater; Brown's restaurant in Trumpington Street is an example of where surplus space is already generating income."
The university will need to make decisions about the future of three central sites - buildings near Downing College that house science departments, the Old Press site and the New Museums site - in the next few years, the board says. The report will be discussed by academics during the university's Regent House debate on October 26.