Vice-chancellors' leaders clashed with the government this week over the level of funding needed to maintain standards and meet ministers' expansion targets.
Roderick Floud, president of Universities UK, told delegates at the body's annual conference in Aberystwyth that universities were doing everything the government had asked them to do and now it was time to pay up.
Professor Floud, vice-chancellor of London Metropolitan University, voiced members' anger and frustration at ministers' failure to announce funding for universities following July's spending review.
The announcement of money for 2003 to 2006 is now expected in late November or early December, the usual time for the higher education funding councils' allocation letters to institutions.
UUK has asked for £9.94 billion over the three years to maintain standards while recruiting and retaining the additional students necessary for the government to hit its 50 per cent higher education participation target by 2010.
But the announcement of funding will almost certainly have to wait until the publication of the government's higher education strategy document, due in November.
Professor Floud said: "We've proved ourselves willing and capable of rising to the challenges set by government. We've established what it will cost to meet those challenges and to maintain and enhance our world-class performance and reputation. So when, I repeat, will the government respond?"
He said the delay in allocating resources reinforced the sector's fragility. "We are making people redundant at the same time as the sector is being asked to do so much more. Why can't we know what our funding will be for 2003-04?"
Higher education minister Margaret Hodge told The THES : "The £9 billion was always a dream. I am currently working with my ministerial colleagues to determine how we use the £12.8 billion extra for education in the spending review. A lot of it is pre-empted for schools, further education and education maintenance allowances."
Professor Floud responded: "It was not a dream. It was a carefully costed document supported by evidence and the evidence and costings have not been challenged."
He said a report by Sir David Watson, vice-chancellor of Brighton University and chairman of UUK's longer-term strategy group, showed that tuition fee income had failed to improve the financial position of universities since 1994. He said that a 0.75 per cent cut in teaching funding was imposed this year and that the Higher Education Funding Council for England had told universities to expect another 0.5 per cent cut next year.