A central issue for the new inquiry into higher education is "whether expansion has gone too far", Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education and Employment, said this week.
Growth in higher education has gone far beyond anything envisaged 30 years ago by Robbins, and the size and purpose of the sector is now in question, Mrs Shephard told a press conference after announcing the inquiry on Monday.
"You have got to ask yourself whether the continued wholesale expansion of the kind we have seen over the past 15 years will continue to result in improved economic effort, can we maintain quality, and is the quality of what we have as good as we would like?" she added.
Mrs Shephard said that although the first stage of her department's higher education review was also designed to examine the size, shape and purpose of the sector, responses had thrown up so many additional questions that it was clear a wider ranging inquiry was needed. The conclusions of the review will soon be published, and will feed into the inquiry, which will report by the summer of 1997.
Though the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats have agreed to Mrs Shephard's offer of a bi-partisan approach to the inquiry, both parties said they would push ahead with their own policy proposals for further and higher education. The Liberal Democrats published their consultation paper this week, and Labour said it expected to publish its paper in May.
The Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals were joined by lecturers and student union leaders in welcoming the inquiry.
But Gareth Roberts, CVCP chairman, said the inquiry was "no excuse for ignoring universities' pressing short-term needs" following funding cuts brought in by November's Budget.
The Government is working with the CVCP on two shorter-term reviews, one examining the impact of the Budget cuts on higher education, which should be concluded by Easter, and another looking at the scope of the Private Finance Initiative in higher education, due to report by the end of May.