Ministers were warned this week not to renege on a promise to maintain public funding for universities after the Treasury's decision to delay its next spending review.
Chancellor Gordon Brown has announced that the Government will look again at public spending levels in 2007 - a year later than planned - to coincide with a new long-term Comprehensive Spending Review to take place ten years after Labour first came to power.
The decision means that the Government will follow through with its planned spending up to 2007-08 on higher education at the levels announced in the 2004 spending round. Under current plans, higher education funding (including cash for the Higher Education Funding Council for England, student loans and grants) will rise from £7.6 billion in 2005-06 to £8.5 billion in 2006-07 and £9.1 billion in 2007-08. Hefce's budget is due to rise by 8.8 per cent this year to next and by 4.9 per cent between 2006-07 and 2007-08.
But higher education groups warned that the sector could not be treated as the "Cinderella" of the 2007 review. Universities UK said that two decades of underfunding of higher education had not been "fully addressed" by last year's Higher Education Act and the advent of variable tuition fees.
"It is vital that the Government maintain its commitments to preserving the unit of funding for teaching and to further expansion in student numbers," a spokeswoman said. "It is equally important that further public investment in science research is made to ensure that the UK's competitive position is enhanced."
MPs on the Commons Education and Skills Select Committee plan to question Ruth Kelly, Education Secretary, and David Normington, permanent secretary at the Department for Education and Skills, about funding.
Pam Tatlow, chief executive of Campaigning for Mainstream Universities, said: "If ministers are serious about widening participation and offering opportunities of higher education to 50 per cent of 18 to 30-year-olds, then higher education cannot be the Cinderella of the 2007 review," she said.
"There will also be great resistance from students and staff who will rightly feel very cheated if the Government breaks its promise and tries to make tuition fee income a substitute for government support."
The first meeting of the UK Science Forum at No 11 last week delivered an upbeat report on the Treasury's ten-year plan for science. Among accomplishments so far listed for the framework was a commitment by research councils to pay 80 per cent of the overhead costs of the research projects they fund from September.
Mr Brown reiterated the Government's target to raise the overall level of research and development investment to 2.5 per cent of gross domestic product by 2014.