The new brief for the Higher Education Funding Council for England is surprisingly precise about the areas in which the Government would wish to see expansion. Workplace learning - last year's priority - is expected to "deliver" 5,000 additional student places on two-year honours and another 1,000 on other flexible courses. Foundation degrees should see an increase of 39,000 places within three years.
Nowhere does Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, rule out more degree-level places, but his claim to have maintained the real level of teaching grant is based on current degree numbers. The letter, which announced a 6.9 per cent increase in research funding, compared with 4.4 per cent for teaching, sparked accusations from new universities that ministers did not value teaching. But level funding for teaching, in addition to top-up fee income, would not be a bad outcome in most universities. Indeed, in the wake of this year's spending review, it might seem positively desirable.
The more disturbing message is in the detail of the plans for courses based in the workplace. These should be "co-financed with employers", achieve sustained growth and might involve only a "relatively small number of institutions" initially. Universities will be wary of an obligation to persuade employers to part with their money for a new style of higher education. A shift in this direction will require considerable support from ministers if the targets are to be met.