Leaders of Maryland's public university system warned legislators yesterday that they expect to lay off employees, increase class sizes and scale back student services under Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s hard-times budget proposal.

In addition, the officials said, an emergency 5 percent mid-year tuition increase that the Board of Regents is expected to approve today probably would be made permanent.

The proposal made public by Ehrlich (R) last week takes $36 million from the current budget for public colleges and universities -- in addition to a $30 million cut last fall under the Glendening administration -- and then freezes funding at that level for the following year.

But state budget analysts yesterday recommended that the universities find more savings -- without raising tuition to make up the difference. While lawmakers showed more sympathy to the institutions, they warned that such cuts may be unavoidable during troubled economic times.

"We all want to keep the momentum going," said Sen. P.J. Hogan (D-Montgomery), noting the recently improved reputation of Maryland's once-mediocre public colleges. "But living within our means is difficult."

State analysts also took an unexpected swipe at another facet of higher education funding, recommending that a longstanding grant program to Maryland private colleges be cut nearly in half.

Analysts from the state Department of Legislative Services argued that the 30-year-old Joseph A. Sellinger Program grants should not subsidize students from outside the state, and suggested that the $47 million program be reduced by $22 million in proportion with the number of Marylanders enrolled at the private schools.

A lobbyist for private colleges blasted the proposal as "a poor recommendation" with harmful implications for the institutions that have come to rely on it, including Johns Hopkins University, St. John's College and Hood College.

"It would devastate institutions that really are distinctive, that bring national recognition to the state," said Tina Bjarekull, president of the Maryland Independent Colleges and Universities Association.

But all higher education leaders may face an uphill battle in their struggle to hold off the budget ax. Many of their most energetic legislative supporters have left the State House, and after several years of generous funding increases, they must combat suspicions that their campuses can afford some cuts.

William E. Kirwan, chancellor of the Maryland university system, painted a bleak picture for members of state Senate and House budget committees yesterday.

While noting that university funding has skyrocketed in recent years, he said that much of the increase has made up for budget cuts implemented during the last recession. Adjusted for inflation, state funding per student remains lower than it was in 1991, he said.

After receiving a minor increase last spring, the 11 degree-granting campuses have seen their funding cut by $67 million, or about 7.7 percent, since fall. With Ehrlich proposing to freeze the universities' budget at about $800 million, Kirwan said state appropriations in 2004 will be barely larger than their 2001 level, despite inflation and increased enrollment.

The university system has had a hiring freeze in effect since last year and probably will have to impose between one and four furlough days this spring, Kirwan said. That suggestion drew immediate criticism from union officials representing university employees.

The universities also have drawn from their cash reserves to make up for funding cuts -- a risky step that could affect their bond rating, Kirwan said.

The system's Board of Regents will vote today on Kirwan's recommendation for tuition increases for the semester that starts next week. The increases, which would not exceed 5 percent, would range from $76 for in-state undergraduates at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore to $115 at the University of Maryland Baltimore County; and from $189 to $333 for out-of-state students.

Kirwan said that any further cuts will aim to protect the core academic mission of the universities, with no plans to eliminate departments or majors -- as they were forced to do in the recession of the early 1990s.

Still, he said, "we're looking at activities that are important to the institution," such as student counseling and health services, career guidance and computer centers. Faculty hiring freezes also might prompt campuses to increase the number of students in a class or offer fewer courses, he said.

Kirwan also said the regents probably will seek to make this spring's proposed tuition increase permanent, adding to an increase for 2003-04 already set at the usual annual rate of 4 percent.

However, analysts from the state Department of Legislative Services noted that Maryland higher education has enjoyed generous increases over the past several years, and that since 1998, no other state has increased public campus budgets so dramatically.