The Liberal Democrats signalled their opposition to the expansion of university education at their spring conference in Harrogate.
The party is officially opposed to the Government's target of 50 per cent of all under-30s participating in higher education. The conference approved a policy document condemning the target as "simplistic".
In his speech to the conference last week, Vince Cable, the party's Shadow Chancellor, asked: "How much longer can we pretend that it is sensible or affordable to chase the Government's target?"
The conference also reaffirmed the Lib Dems' opposition to charging undergraduate tuition fees and agreed to extend free tuition to part-time students.
Phil Willis, chairman of the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Select Committee, told a fringe meeting: "We have to ask whether (the students) are being educated in areas of use to them and to the country. At what point does the state say: 'We have a right to say that these are the areas where we need to grow the student body and this is where we need to decrease the resource'?"
He said that 14 per cent of students did not have a graduate-level job within five years of graduation.
Mr Willis, Lib Dem MP for Harrogate and Knaresborough, also cast doubt on whether a "graduate premium" in salaries existed for all university courses.
"Unless you have a science degree, have done medicine or are going into the City, the reality is now that you don't get a premium ... let's stop this nonsense about a huge investment for the future," he said.
Policy Exchange, the right-wing think-tank, published research last year showing that more than half of law graduates from new universities, and 10 per cent of those from research-intensive institutions, were earning less than £20,000 three and a half years post graduation.
Mr Willis, whose select committee is carrying out an investigation into universities and students, went on to question whether university degrees were "fit for purpose". He pointed out that the numbers of first-class degrees awarded by universities had risen sharply in recent decades and that 60 per cent of students now achieved at least a 2:1.
He predicted that tuition fees would rise after the Government's review of the subject and that a "total abandonment to the market" was likely. This was despite the fact that students were already graduating with debts of £15,000 to £20,000, he pointed out.
The Lib Dems' policy document, Investing in Talent, Building the Economy, by Stephen Williams, Shadow Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, also proposes introducing teaching qualifications into PhD programmes.
This was opposed by delegate Ann Morrison, who argued that this was akin to asking all conference delegates to have MP training. "Ninety per cent of people who do doctorates don't do teaching," she said. She added that the proposal would lead to "lots of bureaucracy and pointless qualifications".
- Details have been published of the application process for the Government's "new university challenge" programme, which aims to create up to 20 centres of higher education by 2014.
An initial consultation resulted in expressions of interest from across the UK. In most cases, the new provision is expected to be offered through existing universities, although the Government said it would not be prescriptive about the models adopted.