The firing by communist authorities of about 70 rectors and deans in Poland's universities has prompted protests from students and faculty and signaled a toughening approach by the government of Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski toward the nation's rebellious intellectuals.

Acting on recommendations by communist party cells, Education Ministry officials dismissed six rectors, the top university officials, and removed dozens of deans charged with individual schools and administrative affairs in 15 of Poland's 91 universities. Although carried out last week, the actions were confirmed only last night by the official news agency PAP.

The firings followed a controversial new law on higher education that drastically curtailed the role in university decision making by faculty and students and reintroduced political criteria into course work as well as the hiring and firing of staff.

University teachers, students and opposition intellectuals said the law was meant to put an end to independent activity in Poland's schools and the dismissals may mark the beginning of an extensive purge of intellectuals.

"The firings are a kind of test to see what will be the reaction of society," said Bronislaw Geremek, a medieval historian and an adviser to the outlawed trade union Solidarity who was fired from his own job at the Academy of Science earlier this year. "If there is not much reaction, they will move into a new phase of getting control over all intellectual circles through aggression."

The new education law was condemned by the senates of more than 50 universities last summer and was opposed even by some official political organizations and deputies in the communist-controlled parliament. Several university senates, made up of student, faculty, and university worker representatives, also met last week to criticize the firings.

After some debate, students in Warsaw decided not to strike over the latest action, fearing they would not attract enough active public support to win a confrontation with the authorities.

"It is simply not a good time in the country to start a student strike," said a university source active in the talks. "But if the authorities push further now they will be risking a united response."

Government officials have explained both the new university law and the firings as steps to improve efficiency and restore the "socialist character" of education.

Faculty members and political analysts say Jaruzelski is intent on restoring the leadership of the communist party to key social institutions before a party congress early next year. The party's lack of control over intellectual circles and cultural activities remains one of its most glaring failings by the standards of Soviet Bloc communism, they noted.

"The authorities know the intelligentsia has a tremendous impact on the social climate," said Geremek. "And the spirit of freedom in the Polish people is first of all, they think, connected to the intelligentsia."

In universities, authorities have faced the problem of losing authority to noncommunists. Ironically, the government facilitated this development during the period of martial law in 1982 by sanctioning a university reform that gave substantial power to the elected senates as well as to student self-governing councils.

Three years later, official student organizations at major universities have only a handful of members and communist activists have found themselves outnumbered in the senate, the student government and other key bodies making decisions on faculty, administrators and courses. The Warsaw senate even created a special committee to monitor political prisoners.

Most of the deans and rectors dismissed last week were political independents or sympathizers of Solidarity who had been elected by senates and hoped to maintain a measure of university autonomy from the party and government. Under the new law, the minister of education was given blanket authority until Nov. 30 to fire the administrators and appoint new ones to complete their terms. In the future, the minister will also have the power to veto rector candidates nominated by the senate.

"The communists got tired of losing so many secret ballots," said Wojciech Lamentovich, a political science professor. "Party candidates for professorships were losing quite frequently . . . . It was very unpleasant for them."

The new law also stripped the student government organizations of most of their powers, ousted their elected officers and turned their leadership over to the three communist-backed student organizations.

Even as such organizational changes will allow the communist party to regain control over university personnel and affairs, other parts of the law restore political criteria to curricula and the evaluation of professors.

In addition, professors hired or promoted by the universities will be required to sign an oath of loyalty to Poland's socialist system.

Faculty members said the new criteria open the way for an extensive purging of professors, and predicted that may be the government's next step.