The threat of going into the red has forced Durham University to freeze all new appointments as part of a cost-cutting strategy that has taken academics by surprise.
In addition to the freeze, all university departments have been asked to reduce their non-staff budgets by 5 per cent to head off a projected budget deficit.
Staff were taken aback by the new budget stringency, particularly as Durham will receive one of the biggest increases in funding council grants for next year because of a significant rise in funded student numbers.
Some staff fear the measures are a risk to ongoing work at the university.
Vice-chancellor Sir Kenneth Calman told the university council last week that all areas of spending were to come under scrutiny and some "desirable" projects were likely to be postponed in the short term.
A spokesman said areas of concern included proposals to axe the teaching of Russian at degree level, although subsidiary courses in Russian would continue.
A further concern is over the proposed closure of the deaf studies unit.