The executive must do the right thing and ensure a £40 million black hole facing the higher education sector is filled, university chiefs have warned.
University of Ulster vice-chancellor Professor Richard Barnett will use his address at the first summer graduation ceremony of the year to highlight what he believes will be potentially catastrophic consequences of further funding cuts.
His counterpart at Queen's, Sir Peter Gregson, stressed the importance of releasing more money to the sector as academics from his university prepared to visit Stormont to showcase the world class research currently being undertaken.
Their messages come as MLAs prepare to debate the controversial issue at Parliament Buildings.
Employment and Learning Minister Stephen Farry has already warned about the impact of underfunding, calling on colleagues to shoulder the shortfall across departments.
One way to balance the books would be raise the cap on tuition fees from £3,290 to £4,500 a year - an option that is set to be discussed by the executive.
Prof Barnett painted a bleak picture for the future of higher education if the shortfall is not tackled. He said: "Northern Ireland would be disinvesting when almost every other country is investing. And in four years or so one in five or perhaps even one in four seats in this hall where the graduation class of 2011 are sitting today would be empty."
He said the executive had to "do the right thing" and stressed that children from disadvantaged backgrounds must have the same chance of going to university as everybody else.
At Parliament Buildings later Queen's will showcase the best of its staff and students to local politicians. Leading student and academic lights will display their work and demonstrate the impact the university has on people's lives at a local, national and international level.
Ahead of the event, Sir Peter said: "It is critical that our elected representatives fully recognise the role, impact and benefit of higher education to Northern Ireland's social, political and economic wellbeing."