State higher education officials turned up the heat Tuesday on their campaign against removing the sales tax on food, now saying that 9,700 students could be turned away from campuses if a ballot initiative passes.

Utah Commissioner of Higher Education Wm. Rolfe Kerr, flanked by University of Utah President Chase N. Peterson, Regent Mike Leavitt and U. Institutional Council Chairman Jim Jardine, announced the new, much higher figures at a teleconference hookup of the state's nine colleges and universities.Reporters were invited to the U.'s Milton Bennion Hall for the announcement, which was made during the teleconference of the college presidents and their institutional council presidents. The meeting was beamed over EDNET, the state's closed-circuit television network.

Up until now, higher education officials have quoted 3,900 students as the number to be denied college access if the initiative passes. Initiative A, as it will be identified on ballots, would remove the state and local sales tax from food, except that prepared for immediate consumption or sold through vending machines.

Kerr said that the 3,900-student figure would be a best-case scenario. It was based on the assumption that increases in state revenue from a prosperous economy would reduce the loss to higher education from a projected $31 million to $6.4 million.

But economic indicators aren't as rosy now as they were when the enrollment cuts were first predicted. The national economy is slowing, which will in turn dampen Utah's economic growth, he said. Additionally, there are a variety of pending federal and state tax issues that could eat away growth revenues.

A $31 million cut would eliminate 9,700 existing and new college students in addition to wiping out in increases for salaries, libraries, equipment and other higher education needs, the commissioner said.

Several college presidents suggested that the commissioner's worst-case scenario might be too optimistic and even more students would be shut out of college. They said that this fall's enrollment total appears to be several thousand students higher than the number on which Kerr based his projections. An official fall-quarter enrollment tally will be released to the regents Oct. 26.

Kerr and Leavitt urged the presidents and their institutional councils to relay the new figures to their communities through the local media - an effort in line with the regents' decision to mount the media campaign against Initiative A.

The institutional council chairmen also agreed to sign a joint statement opposing the initiative. Several individual councils, as well as the regent board, have already gone on record opposing the initiative.

The regents have formed a political information committee, called Utahns for Higher Education, which will be registered with the state this week.

Leavitt said committee members already have been on the stump delivering speeches. The group plans to match the initiative proponents by airing paid commercials in the week before the election.