Universities face a financial crisis described as a "valley of death" unless their future is safeguarded through funding reform, vice-chancellors have warned.
Steve Smith, president of Universities UK, told the independent review of higher education funding and student finance it was vital that "stability" be brought to the sector at a time of great uncertainty.
With institutions braced for next month's emergency Budget, Professor Smith piled pressure on a review that has become the focal point for higher education policymakers under the new coalition government.
Speaking during a public hearing at the University of Bristol last week, he pointed to a report published earlier this year by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which suggests that up to 25 per cent of the academy's budget may be cut over the next few years.
"The phrase at the moment is to talk about the 'valley of death'," Professor Smith told the review panel. "UUK realises that the Treasury may want to make savings, but (we need) a notion of stability in a period of spending cuts."
He added: "We believe that reform of the funding system is urgent. If you don't put this right, we would have lost an opportunity to reform the funding system for at least a generation."
The UUK president was speaking before the announcement this week that £200 million is to be cut from this year's higher education budget.
In its second written submission to the review, UUK calls for an increase in what it has rebranded as "graduate contributions".
Professor Smith added that there should be no cut in the unit of resource - the amount of teaching funding per student.
Lord Browne of Madingley, who is chairing the review, began the hearing by reiterating that the panel had reached no conclusions, "contrary to what you may have read in the newspapers".
However, Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said there was widespread "cynicism" in the sector about the direction of the review.
"There is a suspicion that this is not going to be about whether we should have additional fees, but how much," she said.
In his evidence to the panel, Aaron Porter, president-elect of the National Union of Students, focused on the need to match any fees rise with improvements in students' power to hold institutions to account (see box below). However, speaking after the session, he denied this implied that the NUS was reconciled to "inevitable" increases.
"What we have seen today is very strong evidence of the difficulties of bringing a fees market into higher education because of the lack of quality information," he said.
"It is basic economics - the market cannot operate effectively if the information is not there."
NUS: LIFTING OF FEES CAP MUST SIGNAL AN INFORMATION REVOLUTION
Students must be given the power to make informed choices about their university education if fees rise, the review of fees and funding has been told.
Groups across the sector told the review panel, chaired by Lord Browne of Madingley, that meaningful information for prospective students was a must if the fees cap were lifted.
Staff-to-student ratios and contact time were among the indicators that institutions should be forced to divulge, it was suggested, with sanctions imposed on those that failed to do so.
Aaron Porter, president-elect of the National Union of Students, told the hearing at the University of Bristol on 20 May: "There needs to be a robust measure of what the institutions are providing.
"If they fail to meet (these standards), it could perhaps lead to institutions being fined and money being clawed back.
"Those who go through the system should be entitled to get what they signed up for."
Graeme Wise, NUS political officer, said the alternative to a system of scrutiny and feedback would be litigation by graduates.
"That would not be helpful for collegiality," he added.
The NUS found unlikely allies in the form of vice-chancellors, business leaders and even pro-fees mission groups.
Steve Smith, president of Universities UK, said: "One of the things that must come out of this review is a clearer statement about what students may expect."
Others agreed on the possibility of sanctions for universities that did not do enough in return for any extra income from fees.
Speaking after he gave evidence, Paul Wellings, chair of the 1994 Group of smaller research-intensive universities, said that the funding council "could begin by saying: 'Why are you not up to the pace given that you are making this commitment?' (It could) ultimately ask if the public resource is being used to best effect."
Meanwhile, Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group of large research-intensive universities, said it was "absolutely right" that potential students be furnished with quality information.
"We are committed to trying to make (the data) as clear, transparent and comprehensive as possible," she said during a second hearing of the review at the University of Leicester on 21 May.
TEACHERS WITH NO TRAINING? WHAT A 'SILLY SITUATION'
A lack of professional teaching qualifications for academics has created a "silly situation" in which many students are taught by staff with no training, an expert has claimed.
Herb Marsh, professor of education at the University of Oxford, told the review of fees and funding that scrutiny of teaching at universities would be vastly improved if minimum standards of accreditation were introduced.
Professor Marsh made the comments while responding to questions from Lord Browne, the review's chairman, about how quality could be better assessed in the academy.
The review panel has been keen to explore how measures of quality could be used to give students better data to inform their choice of institution.
Professor Marsh said that professional teaching qualifications for academics would not need to be overseen by the government.
Instead, the system would drive itself because staff would need the qualifications to progress in their careers - as long as they were recognised as legitimate by the sector.
"A very important and big problem is that lots of people are lecturing who have no training in being teachers, and that is a silly situation," he told the hearing at the University of Leicester on 21 May.
Professor Marsh added that, in addition to qualifications, an "ongoing" system of assessment was needed to maintain teaching quality in the sector.
He also said that despite working in the field for more than 30 years, he had yet to find a successful method for comparing quality between universities.
"In any institution there are going to be good teachers and bad teachers," he said. "It is very difficult (to compare institutions). I don't have a solution for it, but I have been looking."
Professor Marsh's comments echoed those made by the chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England at the panel hearing on 20 May.
Sir Alan Langlands told the hearing at the University of Bristol that, in his view, professional qualifications would enhance the sector.
"My personal preference, based on past experience, is in favour of it. It certainly does not decrease quality," he said.