The government has little idea how to reach its target of 50 per cent participation in higher education, how many extra staff this will require and how much it will cost, it emerged this week.
The admission comes in two government research contracts put out for tender this month. In the contracts, the Department for Education and Skills talks of "significant gaps" in knowledge about the financial and staffing implications of increasing participation among young people.
The DFES admits that it put out the contracts to fill "evidence gaps" highlighted by the Treasury during the past two spending reviews.
Prime minister Tony Blair set the goal of attracting half of all young people into higher education by 2010 almost three years ago. A deadline for the research findings has yet to be confirmed as the research is still to be commissioned.
The first contract asks researchers to discover "how the expansion can and is likely to occur and what the costs of alternative ways of achieving the target are". It seeks answers to how costs vary between institutions, disciplines and types of student and provision.
The second calls for an analysis of "what increase in HEI staffing requirements is entailed by the 50 per cent target and in which disciplines... are the biggest increases expected".
Other knowledge gaps include whether there is a "retirement time-bomb" in academia, how UK academic pay compares with other countries and whether academics are "more or less capable than they were 20 or 30 years ago".
Phil Willis, Liberal Democrat education spokesman, said: "We have been asking these questions for the past five years. The government has always avoided answering them by hiding behind the fact that institutions are autonomous. What this shows now is that it still doesn't have a clue."
Vice-chancellors and lecturers' union leaders were alarmed to learn that the DFES has yet to answer these questions even though it has already set the sector on the road to expansion.
Tony Bruce, policy director for Universities UK, said: "This target has not been supported by a good evidence base."
Some warned that the news did not augur well for the higher education strategic review white paper and the government's spending plans for the sector, both expected to be published in November.
Peter Knight, vice-chancellor of the University of Central England, said:
"There is no way this research could be completed in time to feed in to the expected announcements in November. That implies that there will be no final announcement on funding, other than perhaps a one-year settlement. We will have to wait another year while the department and the Treasury faff around."
Paul Mackney, general secretary of lecturer's union Natfhe, said there were concerns that, without knowing the true costs or staffing requirements, the government would push the sector to expand with sub-standard provision. "Where is their sense of direction and prioritisation?" he asked.
Nick Barr, professor of public economics at the London School of Economics, said: "These seem to be the sort of questions one might have thought about asking at the start of a review."
A DFES spokesman said the projects were designed to "help us say something" about the expected cost and staffing implications of the target. Bids to fund the projects were made in the department's annual research planning round last year, he added.
He said: "The research will inform the development of policies to help the government meet its higher education priorities.
"The department is constantly seeking ways of improving its evidence base. Just because we want more and better research evidence doesn't mean we didn't know anything before."