There may be no new money to pay for an extra 10,000 places on the government's flagship foundation degree courses next year, sparking fears that universities and colleges may have to divert cash from honours programmes.
The Higher Education Funding Council for England has said that the additional places, announced by ministers at a promotional event in October, could cost up to £40 million. Hefce's original unpublished estimate put the cost at £14.5 million.
But when asked by The THES where the money was coming from, a Hefce spokeswoman said that this had "not been finalised" because it would depend on the contents of the secretary of state's grant letter to the funding council, expected next week.
She added: "As with everything else, the money comes from the total block grant we have available. There is nothing more we can say at this stage."
Michael Sterling, vice-chancellor of Birmingham University and chairman of the Russell Group of leading universities, said: "It would be annoying if they were robbing Peter to pay Paul. It was bad enough that nearly all Russell Group institutions lost money when they shifted funds around for widening participation. To take another £40 million out and, in effect, drive down the unit of resource further would be damaging to all institutions."
A Universities UK spokeswoman said: "We believe that all expansion of higher education should be fully funded. After years of cuts in the unit of resource and severe underfunding, universities cannot afford expansion at a marginal rate.
The Department for Education and Skills was non-committal when asked if any funds had been earmarked for the "extra" foundation degree places. A spokeswoman said: "The cost of the 10,000 foundation degree places is a matter for Hefce."
The lack of clear information has raised concern among vice-chancellors and principals that Hefce might have to divert honours degree funds to meet its commitment to foundation degrees.
Last week, higher education minister Alan Johnson told the Commons education select committee that he was planning to expand the number of traditional degree places as well as foundation degree places.
But he failed to say when his plans were expected to come into effect, leaving open speculation that next year's foundation degree growth could be at the expense of honours degree places.
Patricia Ambrose, chief executive of the Standing Conference of Principals, said: "If it turns out that this is not genuine growth, we will be very concerned. We have already said that, while we are supportive of foundation degrees, there must also be growth in honours degrees where there is student demand.
"Institutions need clarity from Hefce and the government on what is genuinely new and additional. We do not want funding being pulled from one area to pay for another."