Unions this week called on the government to abolish tuition fees, restore student grants and fully fund a higher education expansion policy that will otherwise damage the student experience.
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, told the Trades Union Congress conference that while thousands of young people prepared to take up university places this week 2,000 redundant AUT members were clearing their desks, "because the money is not in the system to pay them to do their jobs".
Ms Hunt said the government's plan to increase participation to 50 per cent of under 30s by 2010, "cannot happen, as things stand".
She said higher education spending was now less than under the last Conservative government and "we still do not know if universities will get a fair share of this summer's spending review".
She noted, too, that class sizes had doubled since Tony Blair went to Oxford University. "He benefited from one lecturer to every nine students," she said. "Your children will have one to 18, and this is expected to get worse."
She also complained that thousands of experienced academics would be retiring at the same time as the government would be pushing its expansion plans.
Ms Hunt, who was elected to the TUC's governing body at the conference, spoke in favour of an AUT motion, calling on the government to fully fund its expansion plans. It said: "Congress welcomes the government's commitment to widen access to higher education. But this can only be achieved with sustained investment in staff and infrastructureI Without additional funding, the quality of higher education that students receive will decline further, severely damaging the efforts of the government and universities to increase access."
It said the TUC General Council should "work closely with the government and other interested parties to ensure that the finance and political will exist to increase access and to promote the benefits of higher education to all who would benefit from it".
Two separate motions carried focused on mounting student debt. The Society of Radiographers' motion said debt levels were "putting off thousands of potential students" from going to university, forcing others into part-time work and increasing dropouts. "At a time when increasing numbers of students in healthcare are requiredI this is a waste of valuable talent," it said.
The motion called on the TUC general council to lobby the government to "end the current system of charging tuition fees to students in England, replacing it with a more equitable system" and to "abolish loans as the primary source of support".
A motion from the British Orthoptic Society stated: "Congress urges the government to introduce effective measures to reduce the debt students have on leaving university."
• Paul Mackney, general secretary of lecturers' union Natfhe, was also elected this week to the TUC's governing council.