Northern Ireland's universities will be expected to deliver a more flexible education, attract more international students and produce "distinctive Northern Ireland graduates" despite facing a cut of up to £68 million in funding.
The draft budget of the Department for Employment and Learning in Northern Ireland, put out to consultation this month, revealed that its two universities - Queen's University Belfast and the University of Ulster - would bear the brunt of the departmental cuts over the next four years. It is asking the universities to make efficiency savings of 22 per cent by 2014-15, contributing £68 million to a total departmental reduction of £144 million. The cuts will be phased in, with savings of £7 million required in the first year.
Meanwhile, a second consultation setting out the department's plans for higher education to 2020 states that Queen's and Ulster should be of "international calibre", playing a "pivotal role" in economic growth.
It says that they should develop distinctive "Northern Ireland graduates" - "graduates who possess additional skills that will place them at an advantage globally" - and asks them to provide flexible and accessible teaching, with increased part-time participation.
Closer partnerships with both industry and further education colleges are also called for.
A newsletter circulated by the University and College Union at Queen's says that it had hoped for a better funding settlement.
"Some protection for higher education was expected given the widespread recognition of its importance for economic development in the region. Sadly this has not happened and it appears that higher education will bear the brunt of the department's cuts," it says.
The cuts follow five years of growth in university funding. But academics in Northern Ireland are still awaiting a response to the publication of Lord Browne of Madingley's review in England, which has led to a tripling of the tuition fee cap.
Politicians in Northern Ireland welcomed the Welsh Assembly's decision to keep tuition fees for home students low, and many academics expect Northern Ireland to follow suit, leaving universities struggling to close the funding gap.
The departmental strategy paper, Consultation Document on the Development of a Higher Education Strategy for Northern Ireland, calls for a simplified funding model that "better reflects the need for part-time, modular study to ensure flexibility, adaptability and responsiveness in higher education". It also states that Northern Ireland should expand its share of the UK's international student market.
Critics fear that the strategy, and the cuts, will lead to larger classes, more teaching hours and job losses.
"Staff at both universities were rather shocked," said Renee Prendergast, chair of the Northern Ireland branch of the UCU. "We can't make a 22 per cent efficiency gain and deliver the same quality of service...Funding for universities here should be comparable to those across the water."
The final budget will be approved next month, and the consultation on the higher education strategy is due to close on 15 April.