The Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT) said it is considering taking legal action against the Higher Education Authority (HEA) and Departments of Education and Finance over a recruit­ment freeze ordered last week.

In a letter to Ireland's top universities, the HEA demand­ed that all recruitment in the third-level sector be halted, and said non-compliance would result in withdrawal of funding from the colleges. "The allocation of exchequer funding will be conditional on adherence to the terms of this framework," the letter said. "Failure to comply with the framework or with the reporting arrangements set out above will be considered to be a breach of the framework."

Mike Jennings, general secretary of the IFUT, said that the document was "so threatening in tone and so dismissive of the role and function of universities that the IFUT may well, either on our own or in cooperation with others, have to see if we can mount a legal challenge against it".

Jennings has described the recruitment-ban measures as "academic vandalism" and will now liaise with other organisations in relation to organising the legal challenge against the HEA and the Departments of Education and Finance. President of UCD Hugh Brady has also expressed severe dissatisfaction with the framework.

In a circular sent to all UCD staff last Friday he said: "[The framework] will severely restrict the universities' ability to manage their employment policies. In UCD's case the proposed framework would not only compromise the quality and impact of our teaching, research and innovation activities but also limit our efforts to increase our non-exchequer income from postgraduate programmes, international programmes, and commercial activities. Significant further negotiation is expected on this issue."

The document was greeted with widespread alarm in Ireland's academic community, with one senior academic saying the document contravenes the Universities Act of 1997.

"The proposed employment-control framework is completely incompatible with the Universities Act. It is contrary to the provisions on autonomy, and academic freedom, and the provision on the HEA not being allowed to make funding dependent on adhering to guidelines. It could almost certainly be challenged legally and successfully."

The source added: "It will be more desirable… to reach an agreement with the government and its agencies as to how to proceed, perhaps with the universities accepting a target for reductions in costs, but being left to get on with working out how to implement that."

The IFUT has said these fresh commands will "set the university sector back 20 years". According to Jennings the framework will make the government's aim for increases in postgraduate and undergraduate student numbers impossible. "Worryingly, the framework will also contribute massively to the privatisation of higher education. This is because many universities will be forced to seek private funds to finance essential courses.

"We are looking at a situation where the courses of study and research projects available to students will not be dictated by us as a society to meet Ireland's needs but by unelected company owners in anonymous boardrooms in foreign countries." Most of Ireland's universities are currently operating under a severe deficit.

The HEA was unavailable for comment.