Degree standards are slipping as student numbers rise, Eric Forth, the higher education minister, has warned. The nature of the degree was being "redefined" to accommodate bigger student intakes, Mr Forth told the House of Commons' Standing Committee on the Student Loans Bill.
This was leading to an erosion of intellectual content on degree courses which represented a greater threat to the aims of higher education than any financial constraints, he said.
Mr Forth suggested that this trend, signalled in a funding council document on the quality of degree courses in English, confirmed his "slight suspicion that there may be some compromises in order to make everyone feel better" in higher education.
He was referring to a Higher Education Funding Council for England report on the Quality Assessment of English 1994/95, which stated "baldly" that "a number of institutions award no third-class degrees or fails."
The "worrying" implication was that "over time, the nature of a degree may somehow be redefined in order to accommodate more people". He added: "That is not the object of higher education."
Mr Forth's comments raised fears that the Government's higher education consultation paper, expected in the New Year, will recommend a continuation of the current moratorium on expansion in order to protect standards.
Bryan Davies, Labour's further and higher education spokesman, said ministers were "getting close to arguing that there was a natural limit to the number of people who could benefit from higher education and that we had reached that limit".