EDUCATION Secretary Alan Johnson says he is surprised the University of Bath has pulled out of Swindon because there is plenty of money in the university funding pot.

His declaration comes just weeks after the university's top brass claimed the future of new higher education campuses was bleak.

Mr Johnson said that while the Government was keen to expand work-based qualifications and training, it was committed to investing in new university campuses.

He said the Government had set aside £2bn for expanding higher education and that student numbers are on the increase.

Mr Johnson's comments came after South Swindon MP Anne Snelgrove claimed the University of Bath had "done the dirty" on the town by scrapping its plans to build a campus at Coate.

Speaking to the Advertiser at Ridgeway School in Wroughton yesterday, Mr Johnson said the decision to scrap the Coate plans was a big loss to the town.

He said: "Anne has explained the disappointment here over the University of Bath's decision to pull out and I can understand it because having a campus here would be very important.

"Our target is to get 50 per cent of those aged 18 to 30 into higher education - it is 43 per cent at the moment.

"There is going to be lots more expenditure in higher education. We are attracting more and more students from overseas all the time, so I would be very surprised if universities were budgeting for a reduction in the number of students.

"The money is there. There is almost £2bn for universities to expand."

Last month the Adver revealed that the university was pulling out of the controversial plan to build a campus at Coate Water.

The university confirmed it was abandoning the project, citing issues with the amount of land allowed by developers and fears that Government higher education funding was moving away from new campuses towards extending existing colleges, as suggested in a recent Stern report.

It has since emerged that the University of Bath has been in discussions with Bath and North East Somerset Council (BANES) about expanding its existing campus in the city.

Mrs Snelgrove, who accompanied Mr Johnson on his visit to Ridgeway, questioned how long those talks had been going on.

She said: "Alan echoed my disappointment and Michael Wills' disappointment, and of course the council's, that the university is not coming here and has decided to pull out.

"And I think he explained his scepticism that the university is quoting the Stern report on climate change as the reason why it should not come here.

"To be honest, I think it is an excuse. I wonder how long they have been thinking of pulling out.

"The council in Bath have been more friendly over the last year or so to them expanding in Bath. I think they have been very cynical about the whole thing and I am extremely disappointed about the whole thing.

"I think they have led us down the garden path as politicians.

"We were happy to stick our necks out for them and our reward has been they have just turned tail and done the dirty on us."

Mrs Snelgrove has also promised to fight tooth and nail to ensure that Government funding earmarked for the Coate project does not follow the University of Bath's plan back down the M4.

She said: "If they want to expand in Bath they are going to have me to fight because we want that money for a university in Swindon. Michael Wills and I will fight to get that to the death.

"The university bid is not dead. What we have to do is find a university that shares our vision and shares the understanding about what is needed.

"A town of this size, which is bordering on city size in the next few decades, really is the only one of its kind without a university.

"I think we need to get a partnership with an existing excellent university so we will be looking for that."

But Peter Reader, the director of communications at the University of Bath, said meetings between the higher education establishment and BANES were common knowledge.

And he said that Government funding had not been allocated to the Coate project. He said: "There was no secrecy to the University of Bath seeking an adjustment to the green belt boundary where it passes through the Claverton campus.

"But the proposed future extension at Bath was seen as an addition to the proposal in Swindon.

"There has been no allocation of funding by the Higher Educational Funding Council for England so I think in both cases there has been a misunderstanding."