The government has reaffirmed its intention to lift the cap on expansion in higher education, but has not committed itself to extra spending to cover the cost.
Its response to the Dearing report into higher education also fails to address what Lord Dearing has called "a first-rate crisis in funding research". All major spending commitments have been put off until the Comprehensive Spending Review in the summer.
The response paper, issued on Wednesday alongside the government's lifelong learning plans and its response to the Kennedy report, said the role of universities and colleges in lifelong learning "will be reinforced by lifting the present cap on numbers".
But the commitment to growth is not mentioned in the paper's funding chapter, even though Lord Dearing's committee estimated this could cost Pounds 350 million in 1998-99 and Pounds 565 million in 1999-2000. A government spokesman said all decisions on expansion beyond promises already made would be left to the CSR.
Diana Warwick, chief executive of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, said there was "scope for confusion" over the government's position. "There is no doubt that the government expects to see expansion. The key question is: are they prepared to fund it?" Lord Dearing welcomed the decision to lift the cap on numbers, but warned that the government "must make announcements this summer" to tackle a billion-pound research funding crisis.
The lack of commitment on funding will further alarm 43 professors who have signed a letter calling for a rethink on grants and fees (Letters, page 19).