The Higher Education Authority (HEA) has told Ireland's top universities that current debts are "unacceptable" and has put pressure on them to wipe out all arrears within a year.

Colleges in the red include UCC and UCD with debts in excess of €15m, while Trinity College Dublin is also under strain from growing deficits.

A spokesman for the HEA said, "under the Universities Act, the universities are not meant to run into debt. It simply is not acceptable. They are obliged to give it more priority than they are at the moment."

However, General Secretary of the Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT) Mike Jennings has hit out at the HEA saying "it is completely unrealistic to expect this. Given that it took years to accumulate these debts, it is not feasible to expect them to be eradicated within a year. Even two or three years would be testing. I would wonder whether they have another agenda entirely. The IFUT will be meeting the HEA to discuss this and other issues."

When queried by the Sunday Tribune about how they plan to respond to these new demands, the country's three most indebted colleges stated:?"The Higher Education Authority and universities have been in communication as part of the standard annual budget-allocation process. A reduction in budget allocation is based on reduced sums of money provided in the Revised Book of Estimates, and as a result of the budget."

According to a source from within UCD's governing authority, "I don't believe any university is in a position to clear debts by this time next year. It would take the culling of at least 80 professors if they were to look at staff cuts exclusively.

"This will have serious effects right across the board for what will be, in terms of finance, an unbelievably bad year next year."

It is understood that these movements have led to increased bitterness among staff in the third-level sector over the sky-high pay of college top brass.

Big earners include Trinity College Dublin's provost John Hegarty who earns €215,549, while college secretary Michael Gleeson's salary stands at €153,280 plus €25,000 in expenses and allowances.

In UCD, vice president for research Des Fitzgerald earned €279,788 as well as making €84,000 in bonuses.

The IFUT has also attacked calls from college heads for staff to take one week without pay in an effort to begin to cut debts.