Vice chancellors are to campaign for a change in the funding basis for higher education following the cuts imposed in the budget.
Last week members of the main committee of the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals refused to hear a statement by higher education minister Eric Forth - due to have been delivered by Tony Clark, director of the Department for Education and Employment's higher education section - and formally endorsed support for a graduate contribution to tuition fees, repayable by an income-related loan scheme.
Gareth Roberts, chairman of CVCP, said: "We believe the Government has been cowardly in refusing to address this issue. Now we have no option. Either we get more money to teach our students, or we must reduce their numbers."
The 104-member committee will meet again in London on February 2. In the meantime institutions have been asked to assemble evidence of the damage being done to the system and to students. This will be used to reinforce a submission to the Government following the meeting.
Professor Roberts said the CVCP would be aiming at a number of targets. "We don't just want to aim at the Government - and Eric Forth has in any case shown some interest. But the other political parties, just as much as the Government as a whole, have ducked the issue."
Nor will the DFEE be the only ministry addressed. "We have to show the Department of Health how much medical education is being damaged and the DTI the risk to programmes like Foresight."
The vice chancellors were particularly angered by the 31 per cent cut in capital funding, and the suggestion that participation in its Private Finance Initiative would solve problems. Professor Roberts said: "The Private Finance Initiative, a scheme which is not well established and which has limited applicability, cannot possibly provide the essential resources we need for our buildings and equipment. Even those things it could support cannot work when universities are not given the income stream needed to support PFI initiatives."
Possible action discussed during a wide-ranging two-hour debate, which replaced the original agenda, includes pressing for amendments to the student loans legislation going through Parliament and refusing to supply assessors for quality assessment.
But the vice chancellors rejected a proposal that the universities themselves should impose a student contribution for 1996/97. Professor Roberts said: "This would be unfair to the students and bring the universities bad publicity."
But Leslie Wagner, vice chancellor of Leeds Metropolitan University, argued this week that "rhetoric and rational argument have failed". In consequence "the least worst option is to tell our staff and students and the wider public that the cuts in public expenditure imposed by the Government have driven us to add a fee for full-time students to balance the deficit in public funding".
He advocated a flat fee across all universities, set at a level which would restore 1995/96 units of funding and with abatement or remission for those unable to pay. He added: "The raising of fees is more equitable than reducing numbers."