Welsh universities could lose staff and find it harder to manage student recruitment if the ruling assembly fails to spell out how it will compensate institutions prevented from charging top-up fees in 2006, vice-chancellors warned this week.
They fear that it will become harder to recruit and retain staff because the Welsh Assembly has not worked out how and to what extent it is going to support Welsh institutions, which will not be allowed to charge top-up fees until 2007 at the earliest.
Institutions are also worried that student application levels will become volatile and difficult to manage, with a deluge of applications for 2006 from English students hoping to avoid top-up fees over the border.
The assembly has pledged that top-up fees will not be introduced in Wales during the assembly's current term of office. It has also promised that Welsh institutions will not be financially disadvantaged as a result compared with English institutions.
But it has so far refused to say how it will fulfil its funding promise and has declined to make public any estimate of cost.
Richard Davies, vice-chancellor of Swansea University, said he understood that neither Higher Education Wales, the organisation that represents Welsh vice-chancellors, nor individual institutions, had been approached by the assembly on the issue.
He said: "To the best of my knowledge the assembly has done no financial modelling on this. If they have done any work on it at all, it must be a real back-of-the-envelope job.
"The biggest concern is the uncertainty. We find it puzzling that the assembly has not at least laid down some contingency plans on the assumption that the (higher education) bill will be passed and powers will be delegated."
Derec Llwyd-Morgan, vice-chancellor of Aberystwyth University, said Welsh institutions needed to know as soon as possible the assembly's plans in detail. There were fears that Welsh students seeking places at Welsh institutions in 2006 could be crowded out by English applicants, he said.
"Is the assembly not concerned that there may be more English students in Wales, at a time when it is encouraging institutions to recruit more Welsh-domiciled students?" he asked.
David Grant, vice-chancellor of Cardiff University, has given his support to the higher education bill and the introduction of top-up fees.
But he warned: "It is vital that any changes in funding mechanisms in Wales are properly coordinated with changes in England. We urgently need to be in a position to inform current and prospective students about our future policies."
One of the problems is that the higher education bill, in committee stage in the Commons, devolves responsibility for higher education and student funding to the Welsh Assembly.
A review of funding and student support in Wales, commissioned by the assembly, cannot start until the bill receives its royal assent and devolved powers over higher education are granted. The assembly will then have only until April 2005 to decide what action it is going to take.
An assembly spokeswoman told The Times Higher the funding pledge would be affected by the outcome of the spending review. She refused to say whether or not the assembly had worked out the possible cost.