Pressure was mounting on the Government this week to reconsider the £100 million cut in funding for students studying for second degrees as an influential committee of MPs announced an inquiry into the decision.
The Innovation, Universities, and Skills Select Committee is to investigate the impact of the policy, which involves phasing out public funding for students taking higher education qualifications if they already hold a qualification at the same or a higher level.
Meanwhile, a petition on the 10 Downing Street website demanding reinstatement of the funding has exceeded 14,000 signatures. In a separate move, 154 MPs are backing an early day motion that urges the Government to consider the impact on lifelong learning and Lord Leitch's skills agenda.
Richard Lambert, head of the Confederation of British Industry, this week said the plan looked like "a crude measure" that was likely to have "unintended consequences".
A debate in the House of Lords last week heard strong objections from 15 peers across the benches, with the policy branded "ridiculous", "discriminatory" and "Mr Bean-like".
Lord Morgan, a Labour peer, said: "The Government has championed many admirable principles in higher education. I fear that this policy on equivalent or lower qualifications (ELQ) runs counter to almost all of them."
Another Labour peer, Lord Plant of Highfield, a university teacher for 41 years, described the policy as "spectacularly misconceived", while Lord Puttnam, Labour peer and chancellor of the Open University, said that it was a "bad policy ... based on a false choice".
The Government has said that it intends to reallocate the funding to those studying for a first higher education qualification to help widen participation and boost the skills of the workforce.
Last week, it announced £105 million over three years to deliver at least 20,000 higher education places by 2010-11, which would be co-funded by employers.
The Lords debate heard arguments that the ELQ policy would hinder the Government's own objectives. Some 70 per cent of the 2020 workforce has already left school, making a shift towards flexible work-based courses necessary if Lord Leitch's targets on skills are to be met.
Peers heard that ELQ cuts could hit 20 per cent of part-time students and that 68 per cent of those affected would be over 35.
Baroness Walmsley, a Liberal Democrat spokesperson on education, said the plan "contradicts everything the Government has been saying about retraining and creating a flexible workforce".
She said it would impact on many involved in short courses and part-time vocational and professional education and training.
Lord Dearing warned that Lord Leitch's targets would not be met if institutions were damaged by the ELQ policy. UUK estimates that four universities could lose more than 20 per cent of their teaching funding.
Liberal Democrat Baroness Sharp of Guildford, who called the debate, said it was perhaps "an underhand way of forcing universities into offering two-year foundation degrees.
"The hope is that with all the Leitch initiatives there will be an increasing number of adults coming forward to fill those places. But until they begin to emerge is it right to make these cuts?"
This week, John Denham, Universities Secretary, will mount a vigorous defence of the policy at one of the most affected institutions, the OU, which estimates it could lose 29,000 students.
He told The Times Higher : "It is right to prioritise people who haven't been to university, and it signals the need to challenge all higher education institutions to look at how they can engage more employers and draw them into funding university courses."
The OU is ideally placed to do this, making him confident it will have a strong future, he added.
Even those institutions that fail to adapt will be protected by "significant" transitional funding.
EXEMPTIONS 'TOO NARROW'
Subjects exempt from the policy include medicine and nursing, teaching, science, engineering, maths, languages, foundation degrees and places co- funded by employers. Universities want the list to include:
- Students who received their awards more than five years ago
- The unemployed, those on benefit, low incomes and with disabilities
- IT, economics and management
- Education and training certificates for lecturers in FE colleges
- Institutional credit and short-course awards
- Counselling and psychotherapy
- Professional development courses for public sector staff.