A collegiate mega-university for the 21st century that would back the introduction of top-up fees is one of the favoured models arising from merger talks between Birmingham and Aston universities.
Aston vice-chancellor Michael Wright said top-up fees would "almost certainly" have to be part of the model for a new institution, which is expected to be finalised before the end of the autumn term by a joint strategy group set up by the two universities.
Should such a model win approval from staff, students and the universities' senates and councils, it would then have to be approved by Parliament.
Lawyers have told members of the strategy group that the double dissolution of Birmingham and Aston to create a new university - a unique event in the history of British higher education - would require a private act because both institutions carry a royal charter.
Professor Wright said the strategy group, due to meet again today, should not miss the opportunity to produce a realisable vision of a "different and special" institution whose structure and outlook were designed to meet the challenges of the 21st century, rather than simply pursuing a "bolting together exercise".
He told The THES that he thought the new university could be like a microcosm of higher education in the UK, covering all but two of the major subject areas.
It ought to have a devolved structure, possibly being designed as a collegiate, he said.
However, the new institution would have little choice but to support the introduction of top-up fees unless there was a significant shift in levels of funding or in the funding system, he warned.
"The whole sector will have to go for it because we cannot continue running on the present basis. There is commercial money coming in but, if you look at what is required and what we are actually getting, we are a long way short," he said.
The new university would be a powerful ally for the pro-fees lobby. With about 30,000 full-time equivalent students, it would be one of the UK's biggest, and pooling the expertise of the two institutions would probably make it one of the most prestigious.
Professor Wright said he realised the new institution would have no choice but to operate within the restrictions on fee-charging imposed by the government. Going private was out of the question. But he added: "I think in future top-up fees are going to have to be part of any quality institution, unless there is a change of attitude from the government."
Aston and Birmingham students who travelled to London on Wednesday to join the National Union of Students' anti-fees demonstration said they would oppose the introduction of top-up fees at the new institution.
Helene Patounas, president of the Aston Students' Guild, said: "We are against the creation of an elitist model of higher education." Tim Reith, president of Birmingham's students' union, said: "We would not be happy if the new institution wanted to charge fees. But it may not be in a position to make that decision."
Maxwell Irvine, vice-chancellor at Birmingham University, agreed it was not possible to maintain standards in the longer term without more money. But top-up fees were just one option for increasing funding being considered by the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, he added.