The Association of Academic Staff at the University of Alberta has started a referendum asking all staff to back a proposal to take days off without pay, to help the university deal with a $59 million shortfall.

The six furlough days would save the university about $10 million, according to a document the university has released to explain its money woes to the university community.

The proposal is expected to get widespread support, but Prof. Gordon Swaters, past president of the AASUA, is urging his colleagues to vote no.

"When we bargained the last contract, which expires in June of 2011, we had assumed that the university would get 12 per cent over the three years of the contract," Swaters said.

"That's exactly what the university got, so I think we don't need to make any salary adjustments during the life cycle of this contract."

The online document says staff would have to take as many as 12 furlough days to save the $20 million the university is looking to achieve through salaries.

Another $20 million would be raised through tuition changes and student fees, with the last $19 million coming from cost-cutting measures in university administration.

University Provost Carl Amrhein has warned of a "nightmare scenario" of layoffs, if the three strategies don't make up for the budget shortfall.

The referendum is expected to be completed this week.