Four new research projects, the results of which will feed into Sir Ron Dearing's higher education review, have been commissioned by the Higher Education Funding Council for England.
The projects focus on some of the key issues which Sir Ron's committee will want to explore, including questions of access, teaching support and the benefits of higher education to students.
The funding council says it wants all four to be completed by the end of this year, to inform both its own policy development and the considerations of the Dearing inquiry.
The most controversial will begin to address the question of whether the costs of providing for students from a broad range of backgrounds can be sustained under present financial constraints. It will seek to define the costs and benefits of providing access to mature students, those with non-traditional entry qualifications, ethnic minority students, and those with disabilities.
Another, still to be commissioned, will take a close look at the state of equipment for teaching in the sector, to determine its "quality, adequacy and fitness for purpose". The study follows a similar survey carried out on research equipment by the Policy Research in Engineering, Science and Technology and the Centre for Applied Social Research at Manchester University, the results of which were published last month.
A third study will examine the potential benefits and costs of the use of new technology in teaching and learning.
The final study will look at the nature of graduate employment, considering issues such as demographic factors and the impact of different types of study.