Democrats could try to get the numbers to vote down part of next month's Budget after officials yesterday narrowly pushed through controversial cuts to higher education funding. Funding for the eight universities will be cut by $1.9 billion, or four per cent, to $36.2 billion over the next three academic years, following a 10 per cent cut in 1998. The Legco Finance Committee passed the Government's funding request by 29 votes to 22 despite strong appeals from university teaching staff and students for members to vote it down. The proposal was originally put before the committee on February 9 but was withdrawn due to fierce opposition. Democrats maintained yesterday's resubmitted plan had been little changed and offered no concrete commitments for extra funding. Grants are assessed every three years. The Liberal Party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong (DAB), the Hong Kong Progressive Alliance and some non-affiliated lawmakers had voted in favour of the funding proposal, while the democratic camp and unionist legislators Chan Kwok-keung and Chan Yuen-han, both also from the DAB, had voted against it. Martin Lee Chu-ming, chairman of the Democratic Party, was disappointed over the vote and, referring to the DAB's support for it, lamented that some members had made a U-turn under the pretext that university operations would be affected if the funding application were blocked. In the meeting, Democrat Cheung Man-kwong, representing the education sector, accused officials of making exaggerated remarks to scare the eight university heads into accepting the funding proposal. But Peter Cheung Po-tak, secretary-general of the University Grants Committee, denied the allegation. Mr Cheung later said he could not rule out that the party might attempt to vote down the part of the Budget relating to university funding. The Budget is due to be delivered on March 7, Secretary for Education and Manpower Fanny Law Fan Chiu-fun, who made a last-minute decision to appear at yesterday's meeting, said there was a need for tertiary institutions to 'trim fat'. Outside the Legco chamber, non-affiliated legislator Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee wondered how Mrs Law could ask for cost-cutting when she did not even know the size of university tutorial classes. Mrs Law said about $250 million in savings accumulated by the grants committee by the end of the current three-year period would be distributed to the eight universities. Professor Ng Ching-fai, president-designate of Baptist University, who backed the funding proposal with reservations, said he understood university heads did not want the matter to drag on for fear it would affect operations.