The era of the academic conveyor belt on which pupils progress automatically from sixth form through A-levels to a three-year university degree may soon be over.
Although Sir Ron Dearing, who is to chair the national inquiry into higher education for the next 20 years, has not been asked explicitly to halt its expansion, he told The TES that his main task would be to examine whether the principle that everybody who is qualified to pursue higher education should be able to do so is now "either desirable or feasible".
This was the target enshrined in the Robbins report 33 years ago which led to the first, planned expansion of HE and the creation of new universities in the Sixties.
"The national education and training targets for the year 2000 aim to have 60 per cent of 21-year-olds with two A-levels or equivalent - the qualifications for university entry. Robbins assumed it was axiomatic that HE would be available for all of them. It's now valid to ask whether that is still right."
The new review's terms of reference ask the inquiry to regard maximum participation as a principle only "insofar as this can be shown to be consistent with the needs of the nation and the future labour market", and that all principles must be "within the constraints of affordability and the Government's overall spending priorities".
Because Sir Ron is not due to report until the summer of 1997, his review has been widely interpreted as an attempt to defer the politically-sensitive question of how the vastly expanded HE sector is to be funded until after the next election.
But Sir Ron said that although he was expecting the money question to be difficult, "it will be even tougher to sort out what the purposes of higher education are as we face the 21st century - what are we trying to achieve? Robbins had a clear idea of the purposes of higher education, and although I do not believe in rapid change in education, we must admit that the world has moved on."
He said that his inquiry would be examining alternative ways for people to gain suitable qualifications, including the involvement of universities in lifelong learning schemes and that he would also be looking at how to ensure that people were equipped with "generic skills " enabling them to move more flexibly between work, education and training.
Sir Ron also said he was "fascinated" by the idea of individual learning accounts on which people could draw to pay for courses at any time in their lives - a scheme which would transform the funding of further, as well as higher, education and which has been proposed by the Liberal democrats.
Sir Ron assured The TES that the inquiry will only touch on further education where colleges are offering degrees and that it will not seek to blend the two sectors in a "seamless robe", but he added: "We will have to have very close collaborative arrangements if there is going to be continued expansion in higher education, given FE's capacity to contribute." The committee of inquiry, he said, will be making a point of asking sixth-formers, teachers and students how they see the future of HE, as well as academics and employers.
The Education Secretary, Gillian Shephard, is thought to have started considering an inquiry as recently as three weeks ago when the university vice-chancellors threatened to impose a Pounds 300 levy on new students unless the Government reversed cuts made in November's budget.
The Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals will be working closely with the inquiry but has pointed out that it does little to address the immediate funding crisis in education. Professor Gareth Roberts, chair of the CVCP, said that a levy is still on the cards.
The two lecturers' unions and the National Union of Students have given grudging approval for the inquiry as a necessary but very belated response to the funding crisis. But Don Foster, the Liberal Democrat education spokesman, said that setting up yet another review was a waste of time.
The Liberal Democrats' own policy paper, "The Key to Lifelong Learning", whose publication on Tuesday was somewhat overshadowed by the announcement of Sir Ron's inquiry, proposes the funding of all post-16 education through individual learning accounts.