Three government commitments have conspired to make this year's spending review the most difficult yet for higher education. Behind the scenes, officials are working feverishly to find a way of delivering the promises uttered in public by ministers, writes Alan Thomson.
Two undertakings, from Tony Blair and Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, will, if met, result in an increase in the number of students.
The third, from Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, commits the Government to fully funding these extra places.
The three statements have been widely welcomed in academic circles because they back the drive to attract more non-traditional students rather than seeking expansion on the cheap.
The trouble, however, is that the scale of the growth in student numbers promises to significantly outstrip initial estimates. Far from being a struggle to meet the Government's target of attracting 50 per cent of 18 to 30-year-olds into higher education by 2010, the challenge now is how best to manage and fund expansion that could surpass the target.
The dilemma for Mr Clarke is whether to find extra resources for universities by raiding other parts of the education budget. This issue was at the forefront of the Education Secretary's mind when he admitted to MPs last week that he was "wrestling" with the spending review settlement. He said that the difficulty was in ensuring that growth could be fully funded over the review period 2005-06 to 2007-08.
Privately, university funding chiefs admit that, while they expect higher education to do reasonably well out of Labour's third spending review, it is proving to be one of the toughest Whitehall spending battles to date.
Universities will be able to see the hard figures only when the Department for Education and Skills publishes a detailed breakdown of the overall education budget. No date has been given.
Much of the projected growth stems from a bulge in the teenage population over the next six years. Demographic trends would have driven up the higher education population without any help from widening participation initiatives.
The demographic impact is then amplified by improvements in school exam results, which mean that a greater proportion of each year group is leaving school qualified for higher education. Research shows that the vast majority of school-leavers with the qualifications needed for university take the opportunity to go.
The Higher Education Policy Institute estimates that the combined effect of demography and exam improvements will mean up to 240,000 extra places are needed by 2010, the equivalent of a dozen large universities.
The Government has also made clear that it does not want to recruit more of the same upper, middle and lower middle-class people who already dominate the system. Its priority is to increase the proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Yet those from disadvantaged backgrounds are still less likely to be among those who improve their school qualifications over the next few years.
They are, none the less, more likely to gain a college or university place over the coming years as a result of institutions adapting entry policies to support widening participation.
Mr Clarke must weigh up these issues for higher education against the continued spending demands of schools, in particular the 14-to-19-year-old sector, which is now emerging as a top priority for the DFES.
Three pledges for higher education
'We have lifted the cap on student numbers and 100,000 more will go to university in the next two years, 700,000 more to further education. So today I set a target of 50 per cent of young adults going into higher education in the next century'
Tony Blair, in his "Forces of Conservatism" speech to the Labour Party Conference in October 1999. This was later refined by the Department for Education and Skills as 50 per cent of 18 to 30-year-olds in higher education by 2010.
'I will give that commitment'
Charles Clarke, Education Secretary, responding to a question from James Purnell, Labour MP for Stalybridge and Hyde, who asked if he would promise that the Government would never cap young people's aspirations, and that anyone with the right A-level results would be able to go to university. (During the first-reading debate on the Higher Education Bill on January 8, 2004)
'The settlement will maintain the levels of real-terms student funding per head and ensure universities receive in full the benefit of additional revenue from the Government's higher education reforms'
Gordon Brown, Chancellor, in his 2004 Budget in March