Higher education minister Margaret Hodge has told chancellor Gordon Brown that without extra money the government will miss its expansion target of half of 18 to 30-year-olds in higher education by 2010.
Ahead of next week's budget, Ms Hodge said that the United Kingdom spends about 1 per cent of gross domestic product on higher education compared with a 1.3 per cent average for the 30 members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and 2.7 per cent in the United States.
The minister, who was due to speak at the Social Market Foundation yesterday, pointed out that the government spent 6.8 per cent less on research and development than it did 15 years ago, putting the UK 16th in the OECD league table.
Ms Hodge said: "We have a clear manifesto commitment to expand the numbers going into higher education. But it will need investment to enable institutions to teach the 400,000 extra people who will require places if we want to reach our 50 per cent target."
Ms Hodge also had a blunt warning for universities. "There may be vice-chancellors who yearn for a fictional past era when government simply doled out the cash and universities were left alone. Those days have gone, if they ever existed," she said.
Targets and financial penalties were not mentioned by Ms Hodge. But in the long term it is difficult to see how the government can measure universities against a set of expectations without setting targets and monitoring them. The Department for Education and Skills is likely to revisit this issue after the Treasury's spending review is published in summer. Ms Hodge also called for greater collaboration between universities, colleges and schools. She said that there would be a "blurring" of institutional boundaries.
Vice-chancellors, too, issued a plea to Mr Brown, to put his money where his mouth is. Universities UK said that it would be listening to Mr Brown's budget speech on Wednesday for signs that government intends to meet the near-£10 billion investment identified by UUK as needed in universities up to 2006.
UUK chief executive Baroness Warwick said: "We share the government's commitment to widening participation in higher education. But it is time to back up words with new investment."
In last November's pre-budget statement Mr Brown listed "increasing and broadening participation in higher education" as one of the "crucial areas" to be examined as part of the 2002 spending review. But there are fears that the government's top priority, health, will soak up much of the extra available money.
The UUK submission to the spending review put the bill for expansion and other higher education investment between 2003 and 2006 at £9.94 billion. Extra student numbers accounted for £420 million of the total, with more than £6.5 billion set aside for teaching and research infrastructure.
Baroness Warwick appealed to the chancellor to commit the government to fully funding the 2001 research assessment exercise. She said: "Action is needed to safeguard the viability of high-quality university research."
She welcomed Mr Brown's previous commitment to research and development and innovation, outlined in the pre-budget report.
The Association of University Teachers backed UUK's calls for research cash. In addition to the RAE cash, the union wants an extra £80 million to raise the basic starting salary for researchers and lecturers to £22,500.
Lecturers' union Natfhe is to meet with ministers next week to press for an extra £2 billion, which it says is required over the next three years.
MPs seek to scrap fees
One-third of Labour backbenchers this week backed the scrapping of undergraduate tuition fees and the reintroduction of maintenance grants.
More than 100 MPs signed an early-day motion proposed by David Drew, Labour MP for Stroud, on behalf of the National Union of Students. The government is reviewing student support but has said that it will not abandon its principle of student contributions through fees and loans.
It is unlikely that the motion will be debated in the Commons but its support will embarrass the government.
Ian Gibson, chairman of the science and technology select committee, said: "The system [of grants and no fees] worked before and it could work again. I have never liked the idea of young people starting their careers with huge debts."
NUS president Owain James said: "This government has doubled the cost of going to university... It should use this budget to undo the damage."