Eric Forth, the new higher education minister, has called into question assumptions by university heads and captains of industry that renewed growth in higher education is needed.
A Government consultation paper due to be published around the start of the new year will suggest that more funded expansion in traditional higher education could jeopardise quality and prove too expensive.
In an interview with The THES at the Conservative Party conference in Blackpool this week, Mr Forth said that despite arguments from vice chancellors and the Confederation of British Industry that Britain needed more graduates, the necessity or desirability of more growth was still "a key question to which we do not yet have an answer".
The consultation paper, the next stage in the Department for Education and Employment's higher education review, will encourage higher education leaders to consider the merits of diversification and investment in new areas, such as higher level National Vocational Qualifications, rather than pressing for more students on traditional degree courses.
Mr Forth said: "We have to ask whether the degree is necessarily the only way in which to provide for a fully skilled workforce. There is a risk that people have assumed you have to have as many people with degrees as possible to be competitive. I am not so sure that this is an assumption you can make. There should be a debate about the nature of the degree as opposed to other educational outcomes, and whether one in three is the right level for graduate status."
Mr Forth's views, which also set him against calls for renewed expansion from the Conservatives' national policy group on higher education, may reflect his brief in the newly merged department, which mixes higher education responsibilities with employment.
He says there is a legitimate debate to be had over how far higher education should be academically led, and how far it ought to be vocationally oriented. There is, he says, nothing sinister implied in the official description of his job, which includes higher education "content" among his responsibilities. But the DFEE is "entitled to have a view" about content and discuss this with the sector.
Uppermost in his mind are concerns about the quality implications of expansion, and how these affect the value of degrees from the point of view of the students and the institutions. Echoing Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education and Employment, who this week underlined the Government's determination to protect education standards, he said: "There is always the risk that if you expand higher education too much then you might jeopardise quality and standards. There is clearly no point in expanding and changing if you cannot maintain and improve the quality of provision."
Though the question of funding growth was another hurdle, it was unlikely to be dealt with extensively in the consultation paper, he said. Certainly proposals from the Tory policy group for the introduction of vouchers to pay fees were "not part of the considerations". But Mr Forth denied that the review was a stalling device.
He said: "The size, shape and purpose of the sector are very important considerations and it is crucial that we take the time to get it right."