Almost half of all higher education institutions fell into deficit last year, with six universities £5 million or more in the red, according to Association of University Teachers figures.
Stepping up its pre-election lobbying, the AUT warned that Labour's ambitious university expansion plans were in danger because of under-investment in higher education. The AUT released research that showed that 44 per cent of institutions were in deficit in 1999-2000, a sharp rise from 28 per cent in the previous year.
"There needs to be a serious election debate about the future of higher education," said AUT general secretary David Triesman, on the eve of the association's annual council in Scarborough.
"Universities cannot continue to meet the needs of a growing student population unless there is a real drive to invest money in research and teachingI Politicians who believe that university expansion and world-class research can be funded without investment in staff appear to be canvassing for support in Narnia rather than the real world."
The AUT figures, based on data from the Universities' Statistical Record and the Higher Education Statistics Agency, showed that the sector had a £69.9 million surplus overall. But the figure masked big variations between institutions. The AUT said six universities had a deficit of £5 million or more: Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Liverpool John Moores, Sunderland, Queen Mary and the University of Ulster.
In Scotland, there was a total deficit of £24.1 million.
The figures also showed a large decline in spending on staff as a proportion of university funding. This had fallen from 70 per cent in 1976-77 to 58 per cent in 1999-2000.
"Many universities are struggling to balance the books, and students and staff are almost always among the first to suffer," Mr Triesman said.
The AUT research came as Natfhe, the union of lecturers in new universities, handed a letter to education secretary David Blunkett during a lobby outside the Department for Education and Employment. The letter demanded the minister make up a £473.5 million funding gap between the old universities and their traditionally poorer new university counterparts.
Natfhe said all universities were underfunded, but new universities were receiving, on average, £3,000 less per student than the pre-1992 institutions. Natfhe general secretary Paul Mackney warned that up to 1,000 lecturers could lose their jobs through underfunding.
He called for "means testing" for universities to allow institutions' private income sources to be taken into account when distributing public funds. "If students' families or indeed pensioners and many other recipients of public funding are means tested, then why not apply the same principle to institutions?" he said.
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