The government is holding urgent talks with universities about student support, amid fears that its top-up fees policy could deter the poorest from higher education.
Education secretary Charles Clarke admitted this week that he was worried that his plans to charge up to Pounds 3,000 a year for courses from 2006 could deter people from poorer backgrounds applying to university.
Vice-chancellors are eager to help the government as most believe that top-up fees will increase the income for higher education. But they are worried that the government may pass the bill for extra student support onto them, eating into any additional money from top-ups.
During this week's Labour Party conference in Bournemouth, Mr Clarke was at pains to stress the government's concern for students from the poorest families.
Speaking at the Universities UK fringe meeting on Monday, he said: "I will be candid, debt aversion is the issue that worries me most. There is support for people from poorer families, either through fee remission or through grants or other means. And we are discussing whether that could be extended to students paying the full £3,000 through a combination of bursaries and fee remission."
A UUK spokeswoman said talks were ongoing. But while the UUK is in support of top-up fees, she said that universities were worried that the government was trying to make them pay the bulk of the costs of supporting the poorest students, leaving less cash for academic pay and infrastructural improvements.
She said: "Universities UK has had a series of discussions with government and is continuing to do so. Our position is clear. We should invest a proportion of fee income to help avoid deterring the poorest students. But the new system needs to bring in extra resources to all universities. And we would be worried if it did not bring in these additional resources."
The government's position on top-up fees remains robust, despite the prospect of a large-scale rebellion by Labour MPs over the forthcoming legislation.
Paul Mackney, general secretary of lecturers' union Natfhe, told a fringe meeting that people should not have to take out a second mortgage to get a degree.
Presaging prime minister Tony Blair's conference message of no retreat on policy reform, Mr Clarke used his speech to conference to stress the "fairness" of the government's proposals for top-up fees. In answer to opponents' claims that higher education should be free, funded through increased taxation, he made clear that any additional tax revenue would go to early years education.
Higher education came last in the list of spending priorities contained in Mr Clarke's speech, in which he told delegates that average public investment for three-year-olds stood at £1,800 a year, compared with £4,000 for every secondary-school pupil and £5,300 a year for every university student.
He said: "Of course the taxpayer will, quite rightly, always pay the lion's share. But I believe that it is reasonable and fair to ask graduates to pay a proportion of the costs of the university education from which they benefit for the rest of their lives."
The Conservative Party's plans to abolish all tuition charges, paid for by halting further growth in student numbers, were savaged by Mr Clarke, who called them the "enemy of aspiration and the enemy of achievement".
In his conference speech on Tuesday, Mr Blair asked how the government was supposed to fund further expansion in higher education when the sector could not rely on additional income from the Treasury. He said the government's proposals for higher fees driving expansion would turn higher education into a right for the many rather than a privilege for the few.
* Employers could be forced to contribute to the education of their staff as part of government plans for improving workforce skills, education minister Alan Johnson said this week.
Mr Johnson, who was speaking at a Labour Party conference fringe meeting on further education, said that the skills alliance, which includes ministers and business leaders, "may well consider compulsory levies" on employers to support training.