Spending on education in future would be "tight", the Permanent Secretary at the Department for Education and Skills warned this week, confirming fears that universities stand to gain little from the next Comprehensive Spending Review.
In his first appearance as Permanent Secretary before the Commons Education Select Committee, former chief inspector of schools David Bell said: "It will be tight. But we have to wait and see what happens in the medium term with the CSR."
He stressed that there had been significant investment in education in recent years and that there would be major capital investment in schools in future, but he said little of comfort to those in universities.
Stephen Williams, Liberal Democrat Spokesman on Higher Education, said: "Higher education has been the Cinderella of education expenditure."
Referring to figures taken from the DfES's 2006 Departmental Report published last month, he said that spending on the sector had grown by 15 per cent in the past five years.
This compared with a 123 per cent rise in direct funding to schools and one of 48 per cent for further education.
Speaking to The Times Higher after the committee meeting, he said: "Given Gordon Brown's hints last week that a rise in top-up fees might boost university income, it is clear that higher education can expect little in the way of significant increases in public money.
"The issue will then become whether top-up fees actually represent additional income."
Mr Bell stressed to the committee that part of the reason the Government had introduced variable fees was to provide support to higher education beyond what the Government could supply.
A spokesperson for Universities UK said: "Universities UK has repeatedly stressed the importance of maintaining the unit of resource of teaching, and we would want to see this maintained in the next CSR period starting in 2008, avoiding any erosion in the additionality following the introduction of variable fees."
Referring to Mr Bell's schools-dominated background, Labour MP Barry Sheerman who chairs the Education Select Committee, said: "You clearly know the schools area backwards but you are less confident on higher education.
Even your body language changes when you answer questions."
He urged Mr Bell to go out and meet people in universities.
Mr Bell stressed that he had taken a lot of time and trouble to meet vice-chancellors and all the major university groupings.
He added that he had experience as a tutor at the Open University and said that he had benefited from the Robbins expansion of universities, being the first in his family to go into higher education.