Malcolm Grant, tipped by some to be Cambridge University's next vice-chancellor, has distanced himself from higher tuition fees as a solution to Cambridge's projected £11 million deficit.
As support grows across the sector for higher and differential fees, pro vice-chancellor Professor Grant told The THES this week that the university had a "major problem" with top-up fees.
Professor Grant, one of two pro vice-chancellors, said it was unclear how such fees could be reconciled with improving equal access, to which the university is committed.
His caution was echoed by the university treasurer, Joanna Womack, who said in a recent Senate House discussion that "there needs to be very careful discussions about tuition fees, since any changes there could have serious implications for access and for government funding".
Professor Grant heads a planning and resources working group that is producing a plan to bring the university into the black by 2004-05. Cambridge faces a projected £11.6 million deficit in 2002-03.
Professor Grant said: "We have instituted several initial studies, none of which includes top-up fees. There is a major problem with top-up fees and equality of access for the best students, to which we remain committed.
"Our immediate concern is with restoring the balance over the next three years, and it is unlikely that top-up fees for undergraduates will make a difference in that short period."
But Professor Grant left the option of higher fees on the table for the longer term. The government is considering whether in the next parliament to remove the financial penalties that prevent universities charging higher undergraduate tuition fees.
He said: "We will take advantage of whatever arrangements the government proposes when the review of students' support finally reports in the autumn."
Oxford and Nottingham universities and Imperial College, London, are increasingly open about the need to charge students higher tuition fees. The THES has also found growing support for differential charging among newer universities outside the Russell Group of research-led institutions.
'Reform will win right v-c'
Cambridge dons have been warned that the university will fail to find a vice-chancellor "of the right sort of quality" if they do not agree to reforms to strengthen the powers of the office and provide more executive backing.
In the face of fierce opposition to plans to reform Cambridge's governance, philosophy professor Malcolm Schofield, who drafted the plans, said that they could not tell a prospective vice-chancellor that he or she would have to "grin and bear" the current burdens of office.
The university wants to give the vice-chancellor, now more akin to a senior civil servant to the elected dons, a chief executive's role and back up his or her office with several new pro vice-chancellors.