The email, released Wednesday by the NDP, says university president Indira Samarasekera instructed faculty heads last weekend to draw up scenarios to spend 20 per cent less starting next year.
The deans have also been directed to find a way to raise money to recoup half that amount.
"Clearly this task requires a new way of thinking and planning," Fern Snart, dean of education, told in-house colleagues in the leaked email. Snart did not return a call for comment.
The president's meeting with the deans came three days after Premier Alison Redford's government announced a cut of $2 billion in operating grants to 26 post-secondary institutions for 2013-14 — a 6.8 per cent cut from the previous year.
Finance Minister Doug Horner has said he doesn't want to see the shortfall offloaded onto students. Instead the government wants to see post-secondary schools work together more closely, perhaps sharing clerical functions such as payroll and harmonizing curricula to reduce duplication.
The schools are soon to get letters spelling out the harmonization plan.
In the email, Snart says Samarasekera told the deans there will be a 1.5 per cent budget reduction this year and steep cuts for the two years after that.
"Each dean has been asked to submit by the end of March a plan for the faculty that will involve a 20 per cent budget reduction for 2014-16," said Snart. "We are also to submit a plan for resource generation that will 'earn back' 10 per cent."
University spokeswoman Deb Hammacher said the email reflects blue-sky thinking and nothing more.
"There is not a plan to cut anybody by 20 per cent. This was simply an exercise put before the deans to generate big ideas and stimulate creative thinking about new ways to generate revenue," she said in an email.
NDP critic Rachel Notley suggested the repercussions of such cuts to Alberta education would be profound and long-lasting.
"This is an extremely unfortunate broken promise by Alison Redford. She told Albertans in the last election that advanced education was going to be a foundation of Alberta's growth forward. Instead we've seen major cuts," said Notley.
"It's going to fundamentally undermine the credibility of our university system across the country."
Notley said students will get the worst of both worlds through hidden fee increases and classroom cuts.
"They're going to be paying more on one hand and they're going to be receiving much less on the other."
Redford said during question period Wednesday that Alberta is one of the highest funders of post-secondary education per capita in Canada.
"In the last 10 years, our funding to post-secondary institutions has increased by more than 45 per cent," the premier said. She also said there will be a co-ordinated plan to make sure the cut in operating grants doesn't affect the quality of education.
"Our minister has ensured that he's going to be able to work with post-secondary presidents across this province, all 26 of them, to ensure that those taxpayer dollars are being used to benefit and grow the economy."
Redford spoke in place of Advanced Education Minister Thomas Lukaszuk, who has been away doing charity work in Vietnam.
Lukaszuk is expected back next week, but opposition parties agree his absence has sent a poor message.
"I think his constituents and Albertans expect him to be here to do his job, but that's something for the Speaker to raise with him and his boss (Redford) to raise with him," said Opposition Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith.
Liberal Leader Raj Sherman agreed.
"This is serious business that we've got here, serious decisions we have to make — and the minister's playing hooky."
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