Vice-chancellors voiced fresh concerns over future university funding this week as it emerged that the government may delay announcing money for the third year of its spending review.
Some members of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals had already described as "ominous" the absence of news about years two and three of the three-year comprehensive spending review, which begins in 2001.
But this week CVCP chief executive Baroness Warwick revealed she had been told that while the second year's spending plans are expected in November, the sector may have to wait to hear about the third year.
She told The THES: "I understand that the only argument against announcing year three is that there are all sorts of competing priorities that the secretary of state needs to respond to."
A government spokesman dismissed this as "speculation", adding "we will make announcements on higher education in due course". But he admitted the Department for Education and Employment was still working on how to divide its budget.
Baroness Warwick said vice-chancellors needed to know whether the government intended to continue its generous settlement for year one of the CSR, which gave universities their first real-terms increase in cash per student for more than a decade.
"We have urged the government to let us have that information as soon as possible. It is important for planning purposes that we know what resources to expect," she said.
Sir Howard Newby, CVCP president and vice-chancellor of Southampton University, said that while the year-one CSR settlement was welcome, there was still "unfinished business" that needs attention, such as addressing staff pay, and teaching and learning needs. He said he would be disappointed if the government were to use under-recruitment as a means of increasing the unit of resource without increasing funds.
Roderick Floud, provost of London Guildhall University and chairman of the CVCP England and Northern Ireland committee, said some universities could face planning problems if the year-three announcement was delayed.
"Even half a per cent difference in the unit of resource can make a substantial difference when universities are being asked to make surpluses of 2 to 3 per cent to fund future investment," he said.
Peter Knight, vice-chancellor of the University of Central England, said it was "ominous" that there had been no announcement so far, and the CVCP was paying the price for failing to take a harder line with ministers.
But Baroness Blackstone, the higher education minister, said there was nothing sinister in the delay. "People must not draw the wrong conclusions. There will be an announcement soon," she said.