Cambridge University's new vice-chancellor, Alison Richard, this week defied expectations and sounded a strong note of caution over the introduction of top-up tuition fees.
In an interview with The THES , Professor Richard said she was "not ready" to declare her support for top-up fees in principle, despite overseeing a steep increase in fees up to $24,000 (£15,000) at Yale, the private US Ivy League university where she has been for the past eight years.
"One thing that I would say, and I'd say it with passion and conviction, is that whatever the answers on university funding are going to be, they cannot be at the expense of access."
Her comments came at the same time as the man instrumental in her appointment, Cambridge professor Tony Badger, said he did not believe top-up fees would provide additional money once access bursaries had been paid for.
Professor Richard was officially introduced this week as Cambridge's vice-chancellor-elect. She is due to be in post for seven years from October next year, subject to official approval, expected on December 13. The Kent-born Cambridge graduate said: "Cambridge is in a small handful of universities that have cutting-edge research and scholarship, across a broad sweep of disciplines, combined with a really deep commitment to education."
She added: "There is no doubt in anyone's mind that there is a real need to find revenues to support this expensive undertaking, and the alternative is for Britain, and Cambridge, to take itself out of the business of supporting that kind of array of research and education. I don't hear anybody seriously proposing that."
But she said the desperate need for extra funding "somehow has to be recognised while continuing to ensure that students, regardless of their ability to pay, are able to benefit from education".
Professor Badger, head of the selection committee that chose Professor Richard, said the need to find millions of pounds to fund poorer students meant top-up fees would not work. "I am sceptical about whether money freed up in terms of top-up fees would give any more to the university when it has met the financial requirements of a needs-blind admissions system," he said.
Cambridge has a £1 million fund for bursaries, but said that if top-up fees were introduced it would need around £50 million to ensure that no student was barred because of an inability to pay.
In her drive for greater access, Professor Richard said she was prepared to look at Cambridge's admissions system, and was keen to explore ways to judge students' potential outside the traditional A-level system. "I have a sense that there is a lot of opportunity for making much more complex assessments about a student's potential," she said.
Professor Richard, who beat 97 candidates for the job, would not be drawn on whether Cambridge should follow other institutions in making lower offers to students from deprived schools, but referred to the US system, where scholastic aptitude tests (SATs) are used to judge potential.
"In the US, we have a multiplicity of qualitative as well as quantitative indicators of the students' abilities and capacity to grow. There is no simple answer. One can imagine just taking students with perfect scores on their SATs, but you'd miss a lot of very interesting students that way," Professor Richard said.
• Staff at University College London have rejected top-up fees, making it difficult for UCL to introduce them. An overwhelming majority of staff at last week's meeting of its academic board passed a motion calling on the government "to reject the option of top-up fees and to explore energetically all other options for funding access to higher education irrespective of income".