Several hundred job losses in Scotland will be needed to avoid a financial crisis, the convener of Universities Scotland said this week, raising fears of more cuts to come.
But the University and College Union accused institutions of jumping the gun in advance of the 2007 Scottish Spending Review and urged them to remain optimistic and avoid cuts.
Andrew Hamnett, principal of Strathclyde University, told staff that he expected to have to axe some 250 jobs, 7 per cent of the workforce, by 2009-10 to reduce staffing costs by £10 million.
Sir Alan Langlands, principal of Dundee University, said he could not rule out redundancies in a bid to make recurrent savings of £4.3 million, given the university's deficit of £1.6 million in each of the past two years. The university court meets this month to discuss proposals.
Glasgow University last year shed more than 200 staff to help meet a multimillion-pound deficit and is re-examining its campus presence in Dumfries because of a recurrent deficit there.
But its principal, Sir Muir Russell, convener of Universities Scotland, said this week: "We manage prudently and responsibly with regard to the sustainability of our universities. This is not a sector in crisis, but one acting now to ensure that we don't reach a crisis. It would be irresponsible if we weren't taking steps to sustain our future health."
Unlike English universities, Scottish institutions have no income from top-up fees because the Scottish Parliament axed fees for Scottish and European Union students. They were replaced by a graduate endowment contribution that is ring-fenced for student support.
In the run-up to the Scottish elections in May, there is no sign of any political party accepting the prospect of fees.
Universities Scotland estimates that institutions' budgets for staff, maintenance and utilities bills will rise by some 9 per cent in the next few years, while actual costs will rise by nearly double that.
A spokesperson said: "If all our costs are rising, there is no option other than to find a way to reduce them. Since 70 per cent of a university's expenditure goes on staff costs, the options are limited."
But David Bleiman, UCU Scottish official, said: "(Scotland's) First Minister has made his commitment to higher education abundantly clear.
Universities should go into the spending review full of confidence and plans to deliver for Scotland, not to cut back on provision."
The union is also questioning Strathclyde and Dundee's involvement in building programmes when posts are at risk.