Conservatives suspect that a secret government plan to allow higher university tuition fees is behind the delay in announcing higher education money for year three of its spending review.
Shadow education secretary Theresa May said that despite "disingenuous" government statements to the contrary, a plan to allow universities to raise more money through differential fees after the next election could explain why the government refuses to announce the public funding settlement for higher education in 2003-04.
Ms May challenged the government to admit differential fees are a possibility or to announce the 2003-04 settlement immediately. She said that presumably there was nothing to stop the education department announcing the settlement immediately since it had known overall figures for education for all three spending review years since the summer.
So far, higher education knows only the settlement for year one of the spending review, 2001-02. It provides what the government claims is the first real-terms increase in funding per student in years. Year two is due to be announced next month. Ministers have indicated that year three will be announced next year, but no dates have been set.
Ms May said: "What else would explain why higher education... was not told its settlement for all three spending review years? Labour clearly doesn't want to commit to public spending in higher education in 2003-04 in the knowledge that universities could introduce top-up fees."
An education department spokeswoman said there were no plans to introduce top-up fees. She said funding for 2001-02 would be confirmed in the autumn. The government has said previously that funding for 2003-04 would be announced next year.