In election manifestos that offered little new for the sector, the Conservative Party appears to be focusing on further education to improve young Britons' skills, while Labour places greater emphasis on universities' role in boosting social mobility.
In their Invitation to Join the Government of Britain, launched on 13 April, the Tories say they will "not accept another generation being consigned to an uncertain future", and pledge to "promote fair access" to universities, the professions and jobs.
The party will achieve this by axing government schemes such as Train to Gain to fund 400,000 "work pairing, apprenticeship, college and training places over two years", an all-age careers-advice service, and a "community learning fund" to help people restart their careers.
"We will set colleges free from direct state control and abolish many of the further education quangos Labour has put in place," the party adds.
As had been announced previously, the Tories also promise to provide 10,000 extra university places in 2010-11, funded by the early repayment of student loans.
Labour's manifesto, A Future Fair for All, launched on 12 April, abandons its 50 per cent target for university participation.
In its stead, the party identifies a wider objective for 75 per cent of young people to enter higher education, complete an advanced apprenticeship or undergo technician-level training by the age of 30.
Future university expansion will focus on foundation degrees, part-time study and science, technology, engineering and mathematics, it adds.
Labour also asks universities to "raise their game" in outreach to state schools, widening participation and boosting social mobility.
The manifesto promises to expand programmes designed to encourage able students from poor backgrounds to attend research-intensive Russell Group universities.
It says the party supports universities that take into account the context of applicants' educational achievements, including their personal and social backgrounds.
On science and research, Labour says it is committed to a ring-fenced science budget in the next Comprehensive Spending Review, and will invest in Technology and Innovation Centres.
It also points to its backing for the commercialisation of university research through the University Enterprise Capital Fund, support for which was announced in last month's Budget.
As previously indicated, the Conservatives have promised to delay the implementation of the research excellence framework because of disquiet in the academy over plans to measure and reward the social and economic impact of research.
The party's manifesto notes that contributions to the economy can come from "fundamental research with no immediate application", and says a Tory government would ensure that universities "enjoy the freedom to pursue academic excellence".
The party also pledges to implement recommendations from a recent review of innovation strategy by Sir James Dyson, the inventor and entrepreneur.
This will include setting up "joint university-business research and development institutes" and a multi-year science and research budget to provide "a stable investment climate for the research councils".