Sir Eric believes that very few people outside the universities really understand the nature of the squeeze. Twenty years ago more than three quarters of Imperial's total income came directly from government in the form of a grant. Today it is around 42%, while the rest is obtained competitively from research grants and contracts or from student fees.
"That sounds like good news," says Sir Eric. "It almost sounds as if we're 58% in charge of what we're doing. The trouble is that that 58% is largely money in and money out."
What he means is that although in one sense the competitively won money is very desirable - it gives a terrific boost to Imperial's research and, because many of the contracts are from industry, keeps the university closely in touch with the real world - it actually contributes next to nothing to the core costs of the college, of which, of course, academic salaries are the largest single component. "So when it comes to paying the academic and administrative core staff of the college, when it comes to heating and lighting the buildings, ensuring their safety, maintaining the basic fabric of the place, it is the Universities Funding Council block grant which is the only money available to cover these costs."
The most dramatic effect of the squeeze, says Sir Eric, is seen in academic salaries. He produces figures which show that while dons' salaries have retained their real value over the past 15 years or so - that is to say, they have kept pace with the retail prices index - almost every other non-manual worker in the UK has done significantly better. Academics are about 36% behind the average (non-manual) index.
The main problem which Sir Eric foresees is among the younger academic staff. He could not argue, looking at Imperial, that there has been a major brain drain of senior staff. But it is quite different in almost any university if one looks at the immediate post-doctoral level. There is now overwhelming evidence that the UK is actually losing most of the best of these researchers.
Over the years, says Sir Eric, he has worked with a great number of PhD students, all of them very able, some outstandingly so. Almost every one of those in the second category has left the country. The trouble is that taken overall the drop in academic competence has not been dramatic. It is simply another instance of "graceful degradation".
"It does not hit the headlines; it does not readily rise to the top of any politician's list of immediate concerns," he says. "Yet in the long run - and we have already had a pretty long run - the results are potentially devastating."
Sir Eric Ash
1928 Born in Germany, son of German-Jewish lawyer
1938 Moves to England 1945 Engineering undergraduate at Imperial College, London
1952-54 Research fellow, Stanford University, California
1954-55 Research assistant, Queen Mary's College, London
1955-63 Research engineer, Standard Telecommunications
1963-65 Senior lecturer, University College, London (UCL)
1965-67 Reader, UCL
1967-80 Professor of Electrical Engineering, UCL
1980-85 Head of Department of Electronic and Electrical Engineering, UCL
1985 Rector, Imperial College
(Malcolm Brown is a freelance writer.)