Chancellor Gordon Brown's "course for a Britain of stability and steady growth" will need careful navigation if it is to benefit higher education, vice-chancellors warned this week.
An initial welcome to Mr Brown's pledge that the majority of school-leavers should "go on to degrees for the first time in our history" by the end of the next decade was followed by a call for clarification by the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals.
Mr Brown's statement differed from the target of 50 per cent of "young adults" under the age of 30 going into some form of higher education set by prime minister Tony Blair at the Labour Party conference in September.
Both the Treasury and the Department for Education and Employment were adamant there was "no policy change" and that Mr Brown's statement was "upholding the prime minister's commitment" to expansion, including 100,000 extra places in England over the next three years.
A Treasury spokesman said the difference was that Mr Brown's target was over ten years, while Mr Blair's was aimed at "early in the next century".
But Tony Bruce, the CVCP's policy chief, said: "Now they are apparently pulling another target out of the hat we will want to ask the DFEE to clarify exactly what its policy position is on expansion. While we welcome the statement, we need to look at the implications of all this and see how the different targets that are emerging relate to each other."
Diana Warwick, CVCP chief executive, added: "It will be necessary to see further sustained investment in higher education in the March budget and in the next spending review if universities are to maintain high-quality education for growing numbers of students."
Mr Brown also promised:
50,000 new college places to boost IT education and skills
10,000 more college-based childcare places to help single parents
Employer national insurance contributions cut by 0.3 percentage points
Changes in planning guidelines to encourage high-tech clusters
Partnering colleges with local businesses in a new national campaign for enterprise
Enterprise centres linked to universities to benefit from Massachusetts Institute of Technology-Cambridge University partnership
DTI announces a series of new venture capital schemes for new high-tech businesses.
The Association of Colleges was also seeking clarification on the allocation of the 50,000 new IT places. A spokeswoman said: "We do not know enough about it to know how it will benefit colleges."
She welcomed the extra childcare places, but added: "While this is very welcome there is still a massive underlying problem to be addressed. Colleges cannot afford to meet the enormous demand for childcare."
The CVCP estimated the reduction in employer NI contributions would benefit institutions by little more than Pounds 5 million.
But union leaders immediately called for the money to be used to help cover the cost of the Bett recommendations on pay. Tom Wilson, higher education head for Natfhe, the university and college lecturers' union, said: "It is not a huge sum - but it all helps."