The government says an extra 400,000 students will be needed to meet its higher education expansion target by 2010, signalling growth that could cost billions of pounds.
The Department for Education and Skills fears its expansion efforts may be thwarted or quality damaged unless sufficient additional money is released by the Treasury in the forthcoming departmental spending review for 2003-06.
The THES has learnt that the 400,000 applies from the baseline year 1999-2000. On the face of it, this means recruiting an average of 40,000 additional students every year. The DFES has yet to determine how many will be full and how many part time.
Universities UK has estimated that the expansion target will require an extra 30,000 places a year over the next spending review period. UUK says that this will cost £485 million in 2003-04, rising cumulatively to £970 million in 2004-05 and £1.45 billion in 2005-06.
If UUK's estimate of £485 million is accurate, then the cost pro rata of recruiting 40,000 a year will be £647 million. The cumulative total over ten years could be as much as £6.5 billion.
Total public funding for teaching in 2000-01 was £3.1bn. The DFES has declined to put a cost on expansion until it knows the outcome of the spending review due in July. But ministers and officials are acutely aware that expansion with insufficient money will mean lower-quality higher education.
The department is pushing for additional money to fund expansion but it has also bid for significant increases in money for secondary schools. It remains to be seen how chancellor Gordon Brown will respond to these demands in the spending review.
UUK's estimate of 30,000 extra places a year for 2003-06 may prove to be accurate, because the DFES has said that it expects the biggest annual increases in student numbers to come towards the end of the decade. This is because it is banking on improving GCSE performance to drive higher education expansion.
If GCSE performance continues to improve, then it will take time for these extra numbers to filter through. Last year, more than half of candidates achieved five or more passes at grades A to C, surpassing the government's 50 per cent target. The government is expected to set a higher target for 2004 later this year.
Barring any collapse in performance, the additional numbers passing GCSEs and going on to take A levels and other level-three qualifications should ensure that the 50 per cent higher education target is met. The department said that a key fact was that nine out of ten people with two or more A levels entered higher education by the time they were 21.
Another reason why annual increases may be higher towards the end of the decade is that universities have underrecruited in both 1999-2000 and 2000-01. They are now playing catch-up.
The DFES is also unable to say to what extent its expansion plans will broaden participation. This will concern prime minister Tony Blair, Mr Brown and education secretary Estelle Morris, who want expansion to draw far more people from poor backgrounds into higher education.
Because of this, the DFES is leaving nothing to chance and has launched a range of initiatives, such as the Aim Higher campaign, which is designed to raise the level of awareness of higher education among school pupils as young as 13.
The hope is to encourage more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to consider higher education as an option. Ministers have also placed considerable responsibility on universities to "hunt down" able students from poorer backgrounds and to build links with local schools.
If, as the DFES's projections of GCSE performance suggest, the government hits its target in 2010-11, it will mean that half of all 18-year-olds will enter higher education for the first time by the time they are 30.
According to the latest DFES calculations, 41.5 per cent of 18-year-olds will enter higher education for the first time by the time they are 30. This proportion excludes postgraduates and those re-entering after dropping out.
The Association of University Teachers had estimated that expansion would mean an extra 670,000 students by 2010. The union said that it wanted to see the government's breakdown of the 400,000 figure but that it could still cost an extra £2.5 billion by 2010.
A spokesman said: "Our members are more than happy to help the government reach 50 per cent but the extra resources, lecturers and support staff have to be in place to give students a decent education."