The lecturers' union has alleged that ministers are "in disarray" about higher education funding. The University and College Union (UCU) made the comments after a speech by Business Secretary Vince Cable this morning (6 April).
Cable suggested that he might reduce student numbers at universities that fail to fill places as a result of charging high fees.
The government narrowly won a parliamentary vote in December to treble the cap on university tuition fees to £9,000 per year. The increase is opposed by all major student organisations, including the National Union of Students and the Student Christian Movement.
A number of universities have now made clear that they intend to charge the full amount. Ministers have been accused of naivety for apparently being surprised.
UCU, which represents academic and teaching staff, said that Cable's threat "highlighted the flaws in the government’s failing university funding policy".
The union accused Cable of "seeking ways to punish universities and students" and urged the government to "listen to growing number of voices urging it to look again at the whole policy". They added that rushing through the original vote for increased fees and then looking at the details later down the line had always been a recipe for disaster.
“The government’s fee regime is in complete disarray and its sums clearly do not add up," insisted UCU General Secretary Sally Hunt.
She added, "It quickly became clear that all English universities would have to charge more than £6,000 a year just to break even, following devastating funding cuts. Vince Cable was wrong at the time to suggest that a fee in excess of £6,000 would only be charged in exceptional circumstances.
Hunt argued that Cable is also "wrong now to suggest that universities or students should be punished for the government’s mistakes".
The union said it would "quite foolish to pull back on student numbers at a time when countries across the world are increasing their graduate numbers".
UCU believes that large corporations should pay a specific tax to help fund higher education, given how much they benefit from the supply of graduates.