His “belief, hope and conviction” was that fees would be scrapped whatever Lord Browne of Madingley’s review of fees and funding proposes when it reports in three weeks.
Mr Hughes told a fringe event at the party’s Liverpool conference last night that Vince Cable, the business secretary, had been doing “sterling work” convincing civil servants that abolition of fees was necessary to meet the Lib Dem’s pre-election commitment to scrap them.
Most Lib Dem MPs signed a pre-election pledge to vote against any rise in fees put before Parliament. However, the coalition agreement with the Conservatives only allows them to abstain.
Mr Hughes said the message he was getting from inside government was that a “progressive” proposal replacing fees with a new system had almost been agreed.
“We are nearly there, but we just need to edge intelligent, radical, progressive funding of higher education over the line.”
He added: “For me, that is the first huge bridge to cross, and, if we manage to cross it, we will have honoured our first really important commitment.”
Earlier Nick Clegg, the party leader, attacked the “apartheid of snobbery” between higher and further education and said it needed to be corrected.
Speaking during a question-and-answer session, the deputy prime minister said a failure to properly fund further education sent a signal to young people that the “only thing worth doing” was a degree.
Mr Clegg said he was convinced that addressing the problem was “one of the ways we can overcome the division between academic and vocational education that has held this country back for far too long”.
On Saturday, Mr Cable told a Liberal Youth fringe meeting that further education had suffered because it did not have the “sex appeal” of a university education.
“Higher education is a bit more than universities,” he said. “One thing that worries me a little bit is the preoccupation with universities per se.”