Two thousand jobs are under threat in new universities and course closures are blocking access to key degree subjects such as languages and social work for working-class communities, lecturers' union Natfhe warned this week.
Natfhe, which is planning strikes in protest at cuts in nearly a quarter of new universities and higher education colleges, said that funding policies were "a shambles".
Inequalities in funding between old and new universities, and "ad-hoc, knee-jerk" planning by the Higher Education Funding Council had ensured that new universities were hit hardest, the union said. It estimates that up to 1,000 academic and 1,000 non-academic staff face compulsory redundancies, and that dozens of courses face closure.
Tom Wilson, the union's head of universities, said the crisis was compounded by a lack of regional planning. In the Southeast, for example, most new universities were cutting modern language courses. "The net result is that, in the European Year of Languages, it is far harder to study for a modern language if you are working-class and from London," he said.
There is a similar situation in the Northeast with engineering courses, and in the Midlands with social work. Mr Wilson accused Hefce of failing to examine regional strategies properly.
But a Hefce spokesman said higher education institutions were independent and made their own decisions about the courses they offer. "We doubt there would be widespread agreement to any proposal for regional planning."
However, he added that the funding council always considered the national and regional pattern of provision when making policy decisions.
Hefce has demanded recovery plans from six new universities that failed to recruit to target. Worst hit universities include Luton, which is cutting about 100 jobs, including 50 academic posts. This week, lecturers lodged a vote of no confidence in Luton's executive by 369 votes to 50.
Sunderland University vice-chancellor Peter Fidler announced 140 job cuts and some course closures. "We have to regrettably move away from areas of declining demand and accept that we will be a smaller institution in two years," he said.
He said the impact had been worsened by the university's commitment to encouraging students from disadvantaged backgrounds. "The current funding system does not take into account the additional costs of such work and the widening participation premium we receive is wholly inadequate for the work we do."
Natfhe chiefs criticised managers at the University of Central England, who are using a point system to decide which lecturers will lose their jobs. UCE says it needs to axe at least five teaching posts in its School of Sociology to address a decline in the number of students enrolled.
About 70 jobs are to go at South Bank University.
A ballot for industrial action will take place after Easter.
- Trade unions were due to meet employers today for last-ditch talks on pay. Natfhe and other higher education unions, with the exception of the Association of University Teachers, will strike if this year's 3 per cent pay offer is not improved.