Dozens of education bodies yesterday joined forces to call on the government to spare the sector from looming funding cuts. During a marathon meeting of the Legislative Council's education panel, 27 university staff and student bodies urged the government to shelve plans to slash university funding in the 2005-2008 triennium. The groups argued that tertiary institutions had already shouldered a 15 per cent budget cut since 1998. An additional 13 per cent cut is also due next year. The convenor of the Heads of Universities Committee (HUCOM) and president of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), Paul Chu Ching-wu, said further cuts would have a detrimental effect on higher education. 'The budget reduction next year is already a heavy blow to institutions. We need to have some breathing space,' Mr Chu said. He added that to cope with the shrinking budget, the HKUST was already having to consider measures to reduce costs, including wage cuts, layoffs, and even the scrapping of programmes. Secretary for Education and Manpower Arthur Li Kwok-cheung has indicated to university heads that cuts of up to 30 per cent are possible in the next triennium. But a HUCOM statement submitted to Legco said further cuts would cause higher education to experience a serious decline in both reputation and value. It also criticised the lack of transparency in the development of the budget strategy and its implementation. Li Wing-yun, president of the Chinese University of Hong Kong Staff Association, said: 'Any further cuts for the sector without an idea of its future blueprint would only affect the quality of education.' He called for consultation on the key issues of how many students should receive university education and when four-year degrees should be introduced. Chan Fu-yin, president of Baptist University's Student Union, echoed the common call for consultation on a development blueprint for the sector before the imposition of further cuts. Without making any direct response to the calls, Professor Li said the groups had failed to come up with constructive suggestions. 'The problem is we have less money to go around and it is incumbent for us to strike a balance between resisting cuts and reaching the government target of reducing its budget deficit,' he said.