THE MUSEUMS and Galleries Commission is seeking to strengthen legal protection for university museums amid fears that higher education cuts are making collections vulnerable to "asset-stripping".
Concern is mounting despite the maintenance of funding council support for university museum and gallery facilities, and occasional cash injections from the National Lottery fund.
The Higher Education Funding Council for England has announced this week that this year's earmarked money for "national facilities", including museums and libraries, will be about the same as last year, around Pounds 6 million. Last week the Heritage Lottery Fund allocated more than Pounds 17 million to four university museums and libraries.
But as the number of higher education institutions facing financial problems grows, heritage watchdogs are becoming anxious to guard against the quick-fix sell-off.
Royal Holloway College drew criticism for its 1993 sale of three paintings, a Constable, a Turner, and a Gainsborough, in part to help refurbish the building which formerly housed them.
Jeremy Warren, commission assistant director, said such "de-accessioning" reflects the vulnerability of museum collections in times of financial difficulties.
The commission has reviewed the legal status of collections in the hope of erecting "fences" that will prevent sales.
"We would like to see the legal position of university, local authority, and other museums clarified in a way that essentially will make it more difficult for asset-stripping sales which have happened from time to time," said Mr Warren.
As higher education funding continues to shrink, the approximately 400 university museums and collections in the United Kingdom are facing serious difficulties.
University museums generally receive all or part of their funding through funding council block grants to institutions. Twenty-nine university museums in England and Scotland receive additional non-formula funding, totalling around Pounds 7.5 million last year, which is designated for collections of particular importance.
In a submission to the Dearing committee, the MGC asked the Government to provide safeguards to ensure funding security for university collections.
Mr Warren said: "One of the problems that university museums have is that, working as part of a larger organisation, they have to fight to make their case against all the other people within the university who want to put in a bid. It would be quite rare that a university will regard the museum as the top priority."
A lack of Government accountability exacerbates the vulnerability of university museums and collections, according to Mr Warren. Although the Department for Education and Employment provides funding for university museums, it does not regard museums as one of its responsibilities.
The Department of National Heritage, which oversees museum policy, has no funding oversight for university collections.
Tristram Besterman, director of the Manchester Museum, University of Manchester, said: "I see it as a typical British fudge. Simply because of this accident of fate that we happen to be a university isn't an excuse for the department to turn its back. It should be playing its part to support us. And until the two secretaries of state at the DNH and the DFEE sit down and sort this out, it is still going to be a fudge and, ultimately, the people who suffer are the users of the museum."
Alistair Smith, director of the Whitworth Art Gallery, University of Manchester, said the general view among university museum directors was that the DNH should supplement the funding provided by the DFEE.
He said that the dual role of a university museum - serving both the general public and the academic sector - was an anomalous situation that should be recognised by both government organisations.
A DNH spokesman dismissed the idea of dual funding as "impractical".
He said that money was tight for museums in all sectors and that national museums funded by the DNH were encouraged to seek other types of funding, rather than continuing to "rely on the public purse".
The MGC would like to see university museums' funding problems solved within the existing system, but with greater central government responsibility.
With only the larger collections receiving non-formula funding, many of the universities' smaller museums and galleries have no regular source of income.
According to Mr Smith, who also serves as secretary of the University Museums Group, such collections operate on the "grace and favour" principle. "They keep their heads down and are grateful to get any funding at all," Mr Smith said. "It is a whole sector that really needs some attention."