OXFORD and Cambridge face a bleak future if the college fee is withdrawn, Lords said this week.
In a debate heavily weighted towards keeping the fees, speakers gave a vision of two once-great institutions losing their competitive edge internationally, dropping standards in research and becoming mere "clubs for the wealthy".
Higher education minister Baroness Blackstone failed to reassure them that Oxbridge would keep the fees, saying the government was still awaiting the funding council's advice.
HEFCE is believed to favour bringing Oxbridge into line with its funding formula, which allows variations of about 5 per cent from the average level of funding.
But the baroness said the government valued "excellence in all areas of our education system, and we wish to encourage those universities which have renowned centres of excellence for their teaching or are internationally known for the quality of their research". She was anxious that "in any change, those colleges that do not have historic funds or legacies on which to draw are not disadvantaged".
She was aware of the need to respect the constitutional relationship between universities and colleges. But she stressed that other universities also received excellent ratings in teaching and research.
Proposing the debate, Lord Beloff acknowledged that Oxbridge was likely to face changes in the long run as part of the "re-casting of higher education financing post-Dearing". This was likely to mean the universities relying increasingly on private funds. But he said time was needed for this to happen. If the subsidy was removed now, bankruptcies and redundancies would follow, he warned.
Lord Plant, master of St Catherine's College, Oxford, said Oxbridge research was embedded in the collegiate system, and its high research assessment ratings in part depended on it. For Lord Dahrendorf, former warden of St Antony's College, Oxford, elite institutions like Oxford and Cambridge should be the source of pride for "a civilised society". Increasing access was no good " if the places to which it provides access go to the same grey mediocrity".
But Lord Desai accused the Oxbridge lobby of self-indulgence, saying the Pounds 193,000 that each English university would receive if college fees were redistributed could provide 20 extra graduate students at the LSE. Lord Davies, former Labour FE and HE spokesman, said: "Excellent teaching is going on in other institutions at a level of resource substantially below that of Oxford and Cambridge."
* Sir Christopher Ball, former chairman of the Oxford Fees committee, this week described Oxbridge college fees as an "anomaly" that should be withdrawn.
He stood by his claims that Oxbridge has obtained excessive annual increases by "corruptly" outsmarting "feeble" civil servants. He said: "I have come to believe that it is bad for these two universities to be defending the indefensible."
Sir Christopher's comments were "utterly rejected" by John Bradfield, former senior bursar of Trinity College, Cambridge, and former leader for Cambridge fees negotiations.
He said: "There were tough and detailed rules about college fee settlements worked out by the relevant civil servants and toughly applied by them. When the rules were changed periodically, the changes were all adverse to Oxford and Cambridge and were equally toughly applied. To talk of corruption and dishonesty is deeply insulting and mistaken."