Universities face a limit on increasing student numbers for the next two years, with the threat of financial penalties for “over recruiting”.
In a letter to the higher education funding body, Universities’ Secretary John Denham signalled a tough line on cash for extra students. The limit on expansion comes as student numbers have risen to record levels.
Writing to the Higher Education Funding Council for England, Mr Denham said the number of accepted applicants to full-time undergraduate courses had risen by 7% between 2007 and 2008.
Over-recruitment could mean Hefce grants would have to be returned, he added.
The result is likely to mean increased competition for A-level students, as more apply for university courses but the increase in the number of places fails to keep up.
Mr Denham said that because of the freeze in additional student numbers, he was reducing funding for the coming year by £19m compared with his previous prediction. Overall funding for the sector would be increased by 3.2% for teaching, and 4.5% for research, the letter said.
Mr Denham also says he is freezing the number of students for 2010, pending a review of the position
The Conservatives said it was looking unlikely that Labour could meet its target to send 50% of children to university by 2010.
“These figures will come as a shock to sixth formers taking A-levels and diplomas, to people who want to upskill during the recession and to employers needing higher skills,” shadow Universities’ Secretary, David Willetts, said.
“We cannot hope to emerge from the recession in a competitive state until there is a clearer strategy for higher-level skills.”