A drive to set up 20 new centres of higher education in areas poorly served by the sector has been unveiled by the Government - but the creation of any entirely new universities was described only as a long-term "possibility".
The proposals, backed by £150 million in funding over the next three years, will attempt to "unlock talent" and expand opportunities in towns, cities and regions where communities show an appetite for higher education that is not being catered for. The intention is to create 10,000 additional places for students over six years.
But despite reports this week of the creation of 20 "new universities", the proposals stop short of making such promises.
"There is not a single model for a new higher education centre, nor a defined and limited set of acceptable models," the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills says in its report, A New University Challenge.
The report, which insists that the approach will not be "prescriptive", says that in most cases new centres will be "based in, or linked with, existing providers, offering new opportunities".
It adds: "However, we do not rule out the possibility of the creation of an entirely new university in the longer term, if a strong case can be made in terms of need and value for money."
The report says that communities that "mobilise local partners, energy and resources" should benefit from new higher education centres. "They will vary in their size, cost, mission and organisation, but all, in their different ways, should meet actual and latent demand for higher education," it says.
DIUS has asked the Higher Education Funding Council for England to help develop a "transparent mechanism" for communities to put together bids for funds.
Those that succeed, the report suggests, should be linked to wider government objectives such as widening participation, population growth strategies, economic regeneration and efforts to increase higher level skills in the workplace.
The report, which also emphasises the importance of further education colleges in providing higher education, said it was "very likely" that the majority of new higher education centres would involve at least one FE college.
David Willetts, the Shadow Universities Secretary, said: "Ministers are not promising new universities, but new higher education centres, and the funding is not new money - it was included in the Comprehensive Spending Review last year."
Funding for the proposed initiatives will come from the funding council's £150 million strategic development fund during the current CSR period, which runs to 2010-11.
Any of the 10,000 extra student places that are created in this CSR period will be included in the Government's projections for student numbers, which it expects to rise by 50,000 by the end of 2010-11.
A spokesman for Universities UK said: "We would want to discuss how further provision might fit with what is already available, and of course, what it might mean in terms of resources sought and provided."
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