When the Higher Education Policy Institute produced its first projections of growth in student numbers over the rest of the decade, the figures were so large they were treated with considerable scepticism. A year on, the upper limit of 250,000 extra students has been reduced by 10,000, but the change is so marginal as to attract little comment. Although top-up fees could yet necessitate a rethink, it is now generally accepted that - with or without government targets - universities are in for another period of substantial growth.
Significantly, the Department for Education and Skills also appears to accept the Hepi projections, having largely ignored the initial set. Times have changed because, while the full implications of meeting the government's 50 per cent participation target may have induced nervousness in Whitehall a year ago, education ministers can now fall back on the chancellor's pledge to fund expansion at current levels. The Treasury may not expect to find the full £1 billion Hepi believes will be needed, but it will take some creative accounting to reduce the bill significantly.
Higher education may still have to fight its corner in the DFES, where manifesto promises of big spending on the under-fives will produce its own strains. But Labour will want to make the most of the contrast between its expansionist policy and what it will characterise as a capping of opportunities under the Tory alternative.
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