The group of 24 large research-intensive universities – which has traditionally lobbied for increases in the fee cap rather than expansion in numbers – issued a strongly critical press release.
The abolition of the cap, to happen by the 2015-16 year, was announced by George Osborne, the chancellor, in his autumn statement today.
The Treasury said following the speech that the expansion would cost £700 million a year and would be funded by the sale of pre-2012 income-contingent loans. The government expects the sale will raise £12 billion.
Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group, said: “We have always said that quality higher education should be prioritised over quantity, especially in times of limited funding. We are therefore concerned that the government has chosen to put additional taxpayers’ money into growing student numbers so substantially.
“The government has said additional student numbers will be paid for through the sale of student loans but only time will tell if this sale will fully meet the costs of this expansion.”
Dr Piatt continued: “Providing higher education for everyone who wants it will require substantial long-term contributions from public funding and will present challenges for any future government that is unwilling or unable to continue to fund this.
“Good teaching requires proper levels of investment and we are not yet convinced the government can deliver on its promise that the quality of provision will not suffer with such a significant expansion of numbers.”
The chancellor’s speech also contained a commitment to spend an extra £50 million a year on science, technology and engineering subjects, which Dr Piatt welcomed.
“But it is important that this money is for investment in existing STEM places and not simply new provision,” she added.
And she also warned it was “vital the announcement of further reductions to the BIS [Department for Business Innovation and Skills] budget for 2014-15 and 2015-16 does not lead to reductions in funding to universities for research, which pays long-term dividends for the economy”.