The cuts to the higher education budget that have already been announced may not be taken into account by the 2010 Budget, the head of Universities UK has warned.
Ministers have refused to confirm that the reductions will count as "pre-payment" if, as is expected, broad public sector cuts are announced in the next Budget.
Steve Smith, president of Universities UK, told Times Higher Education: "We have asked for reassurance that universities will not be hit with a 'double whammy' if the Budget imposes cuts across all areas of public spending. No one can say that we will be exempt."
Alistair Darling, the Chancellor, said last month that halving the UK's £178 billion deficit in four years was "non-negotiable" and that the Budget - expected in March - would explain where the axe would fall.
Speaking to the Financial Times, Mr Darling "declined to deny" reports that the Treasury is seeking real-term cuts of 17 per cent in all departmental budgets except health, schools, police and overseas aid.
Professor Smith told THE that many in the sector assumed that higher education would be spared because it had already been notified of cuts amounting to roughly £1 billion over three years.
But he said vice-chancellors should "realise the danger" that the Budget posed. "We cannot be certain that we will not be expected to deal with 17 per cent cuts on top of what has already been announced."
A spokeswoman for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said BIS could not speculate about future budgets.
"Ministers have made it clear that they are only asking higher education to make a fair contribution," she said. "We are asking for savings of less than 5 per cent and expect universities to do this in a way that minimises the impact on students, teaching and research."
She added that the £600 million cut announced in the pre-Budget report was "a reduction in the combined baselines for higher education and the science and research budgets by 2012-13", but she declined to specify what amounts would be cut from each of the three areas.
Writing in this week's THE, David Willetts, the Conservative Shadow Universities Secretary, accuses ministers of spreading confusion about higher education funding, "perhaps intentionally".
Another senior source said Treasury officials were being deliberately vague to give them "wiggle room" in the coming months.
Meanwhile, one vice-chancellor has warned that increasingly fevered rhetoric about cuts risks damaging morale in "those universities that do not see these budgetary cuts as the end of the world".
Tim Wilson, vice-chancellor of the University of Hertfordshire, says in a memo sent to staff last week that reports of an impending Armageddon are "simply not true".
"The majority of the reductions are being made in capital allocations rather than revenue," he says.
|%3Cb%3EWhere the axe will fall:%3C/b%3E %3Cbr /%3Eknown cuts in sector’s budget since the comprehensive spending review 2007|
|%3Cb%3ECashable efficiency savings%3C/b%3E (split between teaching and research decided by Hefce)||May 2009||£164m||£16m||–||–||£180m|
|%3Cb%3EReduction in additional student numbers%3C/b%3E (20,000 ASNs at a rate of £4,140 per full-time equivalent)||May 2009||–||–||–||£83m||£83m|
|%3Cb%3ECuts announced in 2010-11 grant letter%3C/b%3E (includes estimated £10 million recovery from recruitment above the prescribed limits in 2009-10)||December 2009||£51m||–||£84m||–||£135m|
|%3Cb%3EPre-Budget report%3C/b%3E (split between teaching, research and capital not yet known)||December 2009||–||–||–||–||£600m|
|%3Cb%3ERemoval of capital allocation flexibility%3C/b%3E||February 2010||–||–||£51m||–||£51m|
|Cuts to be implemented in 2010-11, except for the £600 million reductions from grant letter, which will be made in 2011-12 and 2012-13|