The Secretary of State for Universities has been forced to defend a decision to cut funding for students studying for second degrees, ahead of a speech in which he will call for universities to help enhance the skills of the nation's workforce.
In an interview with The Times Higher ahead of the Universities UK conference this week, John Denham said that it was more important to spend money on people who had never had the opportunity to go to university than on those already holding higher education qualifications.
As The Times Higher went to press, Mr Denham was due to give a speech on the "scale of the challenge" for higher education if Lord Leitch's target for more than 40 per cent of adults to hold a higher education qualification by 2020 is to be met.
But a letter Mr Denham sent last week to the Higher Education Funding Council for England asked it to phase out the support it gives to institutions for people studying for second degrees or lower qualifications, with support reduced by £100 million a year by 2010-11.
Universities UK says the cuts will mainly affect Leitch-agenda adults studying part-time.
David Latchman, master of Birkbeck, University of London, said: "For the first time the Government is saying 'we will not fund universities to teach this group of students even though they are UK residents taking a UK degree'."
Brenda Gourley, vice-chancellor of the Open University, said it would stop people reskilling.
Mr Denham said: "It is better to spend the money on people who have never had the opportunity to study for a degree than on those who have already been funded quite significantly by the taxpayer to do a first degree."
He said the Government wanted more mature students educated to degree level, but that could not translate "into a sort of unlimited right to continue to get taxpayer support when others have never had the chance."
He said the Government would work with universities through "a transitional period that will need to be handled very carefully."