Lecturers are set to reject prime minister Tony Blair's 50 per cent participation target, sending a signal that they will not tolerate further increases in student numbers without major investment in staff.
The executive committee of Natfhe, which represents about 70,000 lecturers, has asked its members to "resist strongly" any government attempts to meet the target without commensurate funding.
This motion will be put to the union's summer conference in early June. The motion states that while the union supports policies to open up higher education to anyone who can and wishes to benefit, it "rejects calls for a 50 per cent target that is not matched by sufficient funding both to maintain quality and to offer enough support to those non-traditional students who require it.
"A notional experience of higher education with high dropout rates and funded, like the earlier expansion, at the expense of lecturers, will be resisted strongly."
Tom Wilson, head of universities at Natfhe, said the union instinctively supported widening access initiatives and expansion, and the motion reflected the depth of feeling in the sector.
"It reflects the widespread anger at the notion that we are being taken for a ride. The government seems to be trading on our goodwill, as we have always been ready to bust a gut to help working-class kids. But we've been doing that for 12 years and we have to draw a line."
Natfhe has about 20,000 members in universities and 46,000 in further education colleges, where much of the higher education expansion is expected to take place.
The motion followed research from the Association of University Teachers last week that said that the expansion would require about 39,000 staff - 22,000 new recruits and 17,000 to replace retiring lecturers. The AUT said this would cost at least £750 million or about £100 million a year up to 2010, on top of the £840 million annual increase needed to increase salaries and close the gender pay gap.
Ministers at the Department for Education and Skills have calculated that to meet the 50 per cent target, an additional 400,000 new students will have to be recruited by 2010.