Education secretary Estelle Morris announced this week that higher education was to be redefined, possibly to include some further education, as a platform on which the government would base its revised strategy to widen participation.
A strategic review, announced this week by Ms Morris, has been under way since the summer, as has a separate review of student support. Both link to the government's determination to meet its manifesto pledge that half of young people experience higher education by 2010.
The planned redefinition raises questions about what counts as an experience of higher education and whether or not it might include further education. Ms Morris revealed her intention to redefine higher education when giving evidence to the House of Commons' education and skills committee on Wednesday.
She said: "Higher education is not necessarily defined by doing three years' study and getting a degree. The nature of higher education is changing. We will be looking at the length of courses and their outcomes."
Asked whether the definition would include study at levels that were "not what the public understands by higher education", Ms Morris replied: "It will be based on good-quality higher education qualifications."
Ms Morris announced the strategic review in her first speech on higher education, which she delivered at London Guildhall University on Monday.
She said: "It strikes me that all of this needs to be part of a bigger picture and we need a debate. The time is right to look beyond the time scales of three-year spending reviews, and think widely and strategically."
As well as promoting closer links between further and higher education, Ms Morris told vice-chancellors that universities should get involved with schools in order to widen participation.
She said: "I want all universities to put roots down in schools, so that the presence of someone from higher education becomes run-of-the-mill, and to persuade people that universities are for people like them. I want to end the link between social class and educational attainment."
She added: "Universities are not the birthright for the middle classes."
The review, which has been ongoing since July, is examining five areas: widening participation; rewarding excellent teaching; maintaining world-class research; strengthening links with industry; and improving management within universities and colleges. An interim report is expected shortly and a final report in the new year.
The Department for Education and Skills is examining further education. It wants to find ways to help people studying at FE colleges, who are more likely to come from lower socio-economic groups, to gain the necessary qualifications to get into higher education.
Commenting on the ways in which a 50 per cent participation target might be met, Sir David Watson, director of Brighton University and chairman of Universities UK's longer-term strategy group, asked: "Is there a short-term fix that would deliver throughput fast? Many of the key questions hinge on the boundary between further and higher education. Estelle Morris could channel more money through the funding council in order to support students working within colleges to get to matriculation level. I am very keen to invigorate access courses and I think it would be best done through the higher education route."
Paul Mackney, general secretary of lecturers's union Natfhe, said: "While Natfhe welcomes any attention to the sector's problems, any new review must be backed with cash, as the Dearing and Bett reviews have already confirmed. Estelle Morris does not mention the crux of the problem for higher education, which is a lack of funding."
A spokesman for the Association of University Teachers said: "It is time that the government reviewed higher education and came up with policy actions. There is a danger that the government gives money to the students and no one else. We shall get them to the gates of higher education but what are they going to do when they get there? The government has got to make sure the infrastructure is there otherwise, it is a hollow policy."
* Earl Russell, a frontbench spokesman for the Liberal Democrats in the Lords and an academic at King's College London, yesterday called for a halt to university expansion in the absence of any new money for students.