THE GOVERNMENT came under more pressure this week to explain what it is going to do about the Pounds 900 million short-term funding crisis faced by universities.
Margaret Hodge, who is chairing the post-Dearing inquiry by the powerful Parliamentary education and employment select committee, accused the Government of a lack of clarity. She warned that the committee could prove a thorn in the side of Government if it failed to give answers.
Mrs Hodge said that the committee, which is due to hear evidence from education secretary David Blunkett next Wednesday, was concerned about the Pounds 350 million shortfall for 1998/99 and Pounds 565 million for 1999/2000, which Sir Ron Dearing had identified.
"I think we will want to ask questions to assure ourselves that there is a clear strategy. It is very unclear at the moment how the immediate funding crisis faced by the sector will be tackled," she said.
Mrs Hodge said that despite higher education's cash crisis she favoured a shift of resources from universities to further education. She said: "It will mean tough decisions everywhere but if they are not taken then the long-term effects of Dearing will be diminished."
The committee will also hear evidence from the National Union of Students, which is certain to restate its opposition to undergraduate tuition fees. Mrs Hodge said that the committee will want to assure itself that fees will not be a disincentive to people from poorer backgrounds.
Failure to appease the committee could lead to it issuing a memorandum which must be considered by Parliament. This could prove embarrassing for the Government if it fails to come up with significant levels of extra cash for higher and further education.
The Department for Education and Employment has restated its aim of improving funding for higher and further education. It estimates that student loans and tuition fees will raise around Pounds 1.7 billion by 2015. The Government has since announced that it will make a statement on future funding within the next two weeks, but not before the committee meets.