There are fears that cuts to higher education funding could rise to 30 per cent over three years and be "twice as bad" as those imposed by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, a former head of Universities UK has warned.
Rick Trainor, principal of King's College London, made the comments at a forum for staff in the School of Arts and Humanities, which is among the departments affected by proposed cuts at King's.
Times Higher Education has heard a recording of the session, which was held earlier this month.
Professor Trainor, who was president of UUK between 2007 and 2009, said that 30 per cent cuts would be "the equivalent of about 700 lectureships" at King's.
The college had initially planned for a 15 per cent reduction in its grant from the Higher Education Funding Council for England between 2010 and 2013, he said - a "middle range".
But he warned there was likely to be an emergency Budget in July delivering further cuts, whatever the outcome of the general election.
"We can't possibly be encouraged by the fact that the only area of public expenditure mentioned by the Chancellor in his pre-Budget speech ... was higher education," he said.
"It is all prognostication and speculation about what above the 15 per cent we are likely to get. But I have to tell you that supposedly wise heads now believe that it may be as high as a 30 per cent cut in higher education allocations from Hefce by 2013.
"Just to put that in perspective, the 'Thatcher cuts' of the early 1980s, which some of us lived through ... averaged 15 per cent (in higher education). So we're already certainly going to get as much as we got in the early 1980s, and it may be twice as bad."
King's currently receives £135 million a year from Hefce, so a 30 per cent cut would result in a £40 million a year reduction, Professor Trainor said. He added that this was "the equivalent of about 700 lectureships".
"Now obviously, not all cuts are in staffing, but something like 60 per cent of our expenditure goes on staff. So this is quite a serious situation. It affects the whole of UK higher education," he said.
The spectre of a 30 per cent cut in higher education funding is also raised in a briefing to the sector produced by PricewaterhouseCoopers.
The document, HE Matters: Funding your Strategy, says: "A realistic set of management scenarios needs to be considered immediately, with tailored contingency plans developed for each. Real cuts of between 5 and 30 per cent are now unavoidable."
Professor Trainor declined to discuss his comments with THE.
He said: "We are not basing our programme on such assessments. We're trying to take something like 10 per cent out of our costs."
December's pre-Budget report outlined £600 million of cuts to the higher education and science and research budgets, to be imposed between 2011 and 2013.
Another £315 million of cuts to the Hefce budget for 2010-11 were noted in Lord Mandelson's annual grant letter in December.
But the peer said that universities were not being singled out, telling the sector that the "lead times for higher education funding cycles" meant its cuts had simply been set out earlier than in other areas.
A MATTER OF PERSPECTIVE: MOOTED CUTS ARE 'SIGNIFICANT, NOT DRASTIC'
International critics of the proposed cuts at King's College London need to consider the severity of the UK financial crisis, according to its principal.
King's is consulting with staff over plans to cut 205 jobs.
Scholars from around the world have written to the college's management condemning their proposals to abolish the UK's only chair in palaeography - the study of ancient handwriting - and to make two leading computational linguists redundant.
Rick Trainor, King's principal, told Times Higher Education: "I think it's important for people looking at the situation at King's or elsewhere in the UK to have the perspective of the very real fiscal pressures on public expenditure caused by the banking crisis of 2008, and also to see what we're trying to preserve - not just what is at risk of being cut."
Professor Trainor said there would still be "huge" commitment to areas such as the School of Arts and Humanities, where all 220 academics have been told their jobs could be at risk.
Asked if the programme would change the institution's culture by prioritising income generation, he said: "Even if we were to implement these proposals in full, we would still have more than 200 academics in the arts and humanities, including a large medieval studies programme.
"We are by no means contemplating massive cuts in those areas of academic life that some people see, often inaccurately, as being removed from fashions for subjects 'paying their way'. That is not our guiding philosophy."
He added: "This is by no means a drastic programme. It is one that is a significant, but not a drastic, reaction to a major crisis, which has led to significant cuts in public expenditure on universities."