Cambridge, England — The late-afternoon sun streams like liquid gold into the tall, stained glass windows of King's College chapel, scattering bursts of red, blue, and green light from the intricate scenes made in the reign of Henry VIII.
Tiny choir boys, their singing finished, skip outside to waiting parents, their traditional black top hats perched on their ears above miniature school gowns, dark jackets, striped trousers, and black shoes.
All looks timeless and serene in the tawny-stone and green-lawn courtyards of the ancient colleges: Clare and St. Catharine's, Peterhouse and Queen's, Pembroke and Gonville, and Caius (pronounced ''keys'').
But behind the beauty and the lawns sweeping down to the River Cam, Cambridge is wrestling with the same problem today as the other 39 major universities in Britain: a government financial squeeze that is forcing hurried cuts of 5,000 teachers (1 in 6) and 10,000 students in universities, and another 12,000 in polytechnical colleges and higher-education colleges.
The cuts are leading to charges that the Conservative government is threatening the future of one of the jewels of British life -- its world-famous higher education system.
Controversy over government cuts has reached a new peak. Defenders and critics are writing articles to the national press. The education and science minister, Sir Keith Joseph, has had to allocate millions of pounds for severance money to dons facing quick retirement or dismissal.
Critics say basic research in science, engineering, medicine, agriculture, and social sciences is at serious risk. The vice-chancellor of London University says the public should recognize the key role of universities in training doctors.
In the short term, the government may pay more in severance pay than it will save in economies. The Teachers' Union is fighting compulsory retirements and urges government cuts to be spread out over a longer period.
Defenders of the cuts say universities expanded too quickly in the 1960s, and offer too many duplicating courses. The government says the number of 18 -year-olds in Britain will fall considerably after 1985.
It is one of the most basic debates in Britain today, affecting the future flow of ideas any industrial country needs in a world of technology and science.
American universities rely largely on alumni funds, but the British university tradition is to rely on the government for 80 to 90 percent of funds, either directly or channeled through local councils.
While a university like Cambridge boasts colleges with benefactions going back to the 15th century (King's College still counts on income from monastery lands seized by Henry VI), newer universities like Salford, Aston, and Bradford in the north of England rely heavily on government grants.
Private funds are welcome for buildings, but if they go toward running costs, universities until now have risked losing an equivalent amount in public grants from the Universities Grant Committee (UGC).
So shivers went down university spines when the government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher decided that part of its cutbacks in government spending would have to fall on universities between the academic year beginning Aug. 1, 1980 and the one beginning in 1984.
The cuts have already begun to bite. As a UGC spokesman explained in an interview, the basic reduction is 81/2 percent in government grants, and another 41/2 percent in the subsidy for overseas students by Aug. 1, 1982.
Of the 30,000 university teachers in Britain, the UGC estimates 5,000 will have to go.
Sir Keith Joseph has now agreed to a redundancy plan of up to (STR)55,000 ($ 102,300) for some dons under 50 years of age. The average payment will be about (STR)33,000 pounds ($61,380). For 3,000 dons, that is a total of about (STR)100 million ($186 million). If dons with university tenure sue for breach of contract, the figure could rise.
Savings from the 81/2 percent reduction in grants will come to about (STR)85 million ($158 million) a year.
''Yes,'' said the UGC spokesman, ''it is a problem for the government in the short term, but government costs will be reduced in the long term.''
Cambridge is feeling the effects, though not nearly as much as other, newer universities, according to a spokesman for the registrar.
The university is having to cut places for 550 students by Aug. 1, 1984 (out of a student body of about 11,500). The Cambridge University budget as a whole will have to be cut by (STR)2 million ($3.7 million). The 1,300 teachers will have to be reduced by between 80 and 90.
All this worries university and college officials because it must be done in a rush, and will affect plans for years to come.
This year Cambridge has maintained its number of overseas students (mainly from the US, Canada, and Australia), but around the country, overseas numbers have dropped 23 percent. These students now pay full fees.
The UGC spokesman said that by 1984, Britain's university system would have retained its quality and excellence, but would be smaller and more tightly run.
Still, the controversy rages. ''Britain needs its universities,'' proclaim bumper stickers on cars. ''Keep on cutting, Sir Keith,'' wrote a London University teacher who alleged too many overlapping courses, and a lowering of standards.
Already Britain has only 13 percent of its high school students going to university; the United States has 40 percent.
From now on, even fewer will get in.