Universities may have to turn students away from popular degrees in arts and commerce if the Government does not let them lift their student numbers.

Steve Maharey, the vice-chancellor of Massey University told the Herald the university was at least 5 per cent up on last year's enrolments which had exceeded expectations.

The university hoped to avoid having to restrict entry to courses that were currently open to all students to cope with the increased demand on its services.

Some courses - such as veterinary science - were already restricted and he said he hoped the surge of students would not place strain on these as well.

Massey University had experienced a "major surge" of about 8 per cent across all its courses this year, Mr Maharey said. It now has a record of about 1000 doctorate students.

Mr Maharey said an open day at the Manawatu campus last week attracted four times the number of visitors it had in previous years.

The response from students who were interviewed on their intentions was overwhelmingly that they seriously wanted to attend the campus.

"There's a noticeable increase in the certainty of students enrolling. In the past the numbers have been lower at open days and they've been intending to shop around."

He said the university had been presented with "a big question mark" and was waiting for answers from the Government.

"Do we take these students anyway but receive no money for them ... or will the Government agree that it wants to see more students in universities in preference to them doing something else that's perhaps less productive and fund us to take them.

"We would prefer to keep enrolling students but be paid for it by the Government," Mr Maharey said.

He worried about how the quality of education would be affected if it was not funded for the extra students.

Mr Maharey hoped to resolve the issue with the minister in the next couple of weeks.

Meanwhile, the University of Waikato is nearly 6 per cent over its agreed target of 8165 ministry-funded equivalent fulltime students and is in the process of addressing how it will manage those numbers next year.

The Victoria University's full-time equivalent student numbers are 2.9 per cent above what was agreed.

Last year the university had 2.25 per cent below the agreed total number of funded students.

Penny Boumelha, deputy vice-chancellor (academic), Victoria University said there may be a number of unfunded students next year and a managed enrolment working party had been set up to examine all the university's options.

The chairman of the New Zealand Vice-Chancellor's Committee, Roger Field, was not available for comment but a spokesperson from the committee said it had been in talks with Tertiary Education Minister Anne Tolley over enrolment pressures.

David Nicholson, the director of tertiary investment and monitoring at the Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) said universities were expected to talk to the commission when they were facing the risk of significantly increased enrolments over agreed levels.

"Our concern is to ensure that institutions manage growth in a sustainable way without compromising the quality of teaching and learning or putting financial viability at risk. We are also interested in getting full utilisation of places across the system as a whole," he said.

Mr Nicholson said he recognised the difficult economic climate the capped funding system of tertiary funding presented. He said areas that were seen by the Government as a priority were invested in first and this included a focus on students who were under 25, as well as on strengthening the educational pathways for Maori and Pacific students.

* Investment plans help fix funding levels

Each university has an investment plan that is agreed on with the Tertiary Education Commission.

These plans indicate the agreed levels of equivalent full-time student-based funding, and outline the overall mix of courses and other performance indicators for each university.

The plans allow for variation, but within a threshold of 97 per cent (3 per cent under-delivery) and 103 per cent (3 per cent over-delivery).

In cases where universities enrol significantly less than 97 per cent of the agreed level of funded equivalent full-time students, they may be asked to return a portion of the funding.

Where universities enrol students above the agreed level of funded enrolments they do not face repayments as they might in a situation of under-delivery. They are simply enrolling additional students on an unfunded basis. International students who pay full fees are a common example of this practice.

Source: Tertiary Education Commission