Public colleges and universities in Virginia, already struggling to trim spending in a tightening fiscal climate, may be spared from further budget cuts this year.

In a memo sent to college presidents this week, Virginia Education Secretary James W. Dyke Jr. said the Wilder administration is working on a way to protect higher education from another round of cuts in state funding that may be in store for the rest of state government in the next few months.

Dyke did not specify where the money would come from to shield universities from further cuts this year. Officials at the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia and various universities said they were not aware of what is being considered. Dyke could not be reached for comment.

"We certainly consider it good news," said Louise Dudley, a spokeswoman for the University of Virginia. "The view was the {additional} cuts were going to be really hard to come by since we had already cut so much out and because it would have to happen in the next seven months."

In recent months, the 15 state-supported four-year universities and the network of community colleges have strained to absorb cuts of about 5 percent in state aid this fiscal year. The cuts have forced layoffs, hiring freezes, class cancellations and building delays. Many schools, including George Mason University and Northern Virginia Community College, have approved modest tuition surcharges to make up for some of the lost money.

But in a grim message last week, Gov. L. Douglas Wilder's budget director, Karen F. Washabau, warned all state agencies to begin looking for more cuts -- 2.5 percent this year and 5 percent next year -- in case the sputtering economy depletes the state's tax coffers even more.

Further reductions would seriously compromise academic programs, educators argued.

Dyke's letter, dated Monday, said the administration is considering a "statewide option" that would cover the cuts universities otherwise would have faced in the remaining 7 1/2 months of the current fiscal year and told presidents not to submit contingency plans required of other state agencies.

The universities, however, are still subject to possible 5 percent cuts in the 1991-92 fiscal year, though the administration may be able to cover some of that as well, Dyke said in the letter. Universities are to provide contingency plans for the 1991-92 cuts by Monday, and budget officers are scrambling to find more ways to save.

The University of Virginia, for instance, must find $5.7 million in savings, according to a memo from budget director Colette Capone. George Mason University, which has grown at breakneck speed for years, is considering freezing its enrollment at the current level of 20,300 and may eliminate several degree programs and restructure others.

The only guidance Dyke's letter gave universities was an instruction not to cut money for student financial aid or a trust fund for equipment.

One university official who did not want to be identified said Wilder administration officials were consulting lawyers about the legality of their plans.

"Further details about this option will be available as soon as we have worked them out," Dyke wrote. "If the statewide option proves not to be available, I shall notify you immediately."