Eric Forth, the higher education minister, has astounded and infuriated vice chancellors and academics by insisting there is no causal relationship between funding and quality.
He pulled no punches at an academic standards conference in London on Tuesday when he suggested that quality in higher education was slipping and that there was no link between this change and budget cuts.
Mr Forth said he could understand those who remained suspicious of academic standards with the rise in the proportion of first and upper second class degrees awarded by institutions. And he warned universities and colleges against joining "the international bull**** league" by hyping up the quality of courses. "It is no longer enough to be able to satisfy yourself that your standards are at the right level. You need to be able to satisfy others," he said.
But when pressed to explain the basis of his concerns, Mr Forth was adamant it had nothing to do with the funding of higher education, which has seen a real terms cut this year of 5 per cent. "I do not think there is a direct causal relationship between money spent and the quality of the output," he said.
He conceded that university funding would be considered afresh in the next public spending round. Universities have threatened to impose a levy on students in response to the cuts.
Delegates were outraged by Mr Forth's remarks. Mike Fitzgerald, vice chancellor of Thames Valley University, said he found the minister's comments "insulting" when his institution was having to reduce the range of modules available to students as a direct result of cuts. "Presumably if you spend **** all, you get absolutely perfect standards," he said.
David Watson, director of the University of Brighton and chairman of the quality assessment committee of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, warned that efficiency gains had reduced the sector to margins that were "wafer thin", and that a financial crisis would precede a quality crisis.
Roger Brown, chief executive of the Higher Education Quality Council, said it was important for higher education to be clear and open about standards and the way they were maintained. Otherwise, the Government might decide to impose its own idea of a robust quality assurance system. "If we do not as an academic community pay attention to articulating and clarifying our standards and the way they are protected then we may be in danger of losing control over them," he said.
* Dr Brown's comments were endorsed earlier in the week when Peter Wright, assistant director of the HEQC, warned that higher education is in danger of having a national curriculum imposed on it if institutions are not more open about academic standards, writes Olga Wojtas.
Dr Wright was speaking at a Stirling University symposium on academic standards.