The vast majority of students will pay the same for a degree regardless of where they study if top-up fees are introduced, according to a survey by The THES .
The findings imply that the proposed tuition fee of £3,000 a year is too low to create the higher education market envisaged by the government.
Fee levels are more likely to vary between subjects than between institutions.
Some 55 universities and colleges responded to the survey, with 20 providing detailed information on what they propose to charge for each type of course if legislation is passed.
All 20 detailed responses indicated that institutions would charge increased fees. None of the remaining respondents ruled them out.
Respondents included Russell Group institutions such as Imperial College London and the University of Nottingham; other old universities such as Exeter and Surrey universities; former polytechnics including Bournemouth, Central England, Coventry, Kingston and Leeds Metropolitan universities; and colleges of higher education such as Writtle College.
A spokeswoman for Universities UK said: "Given the scale of underfunding right across the higher education sector, institutions will be looking closely at the proposed graduate contributions as a means of increasing their income. UUK believes that all universities need sufficient funding so that they can continue to provide a high-quality education for all students.
"We have consistently argued that fee income needs to be genuinely additional and, in our next spending review submission, we will continue to press the case for additional public funding for higher education."
The National Union of Students said it expected most institutions to charge the maximum fee and that it would increase in coming years, irrespective of graduate earnings.
NUS president Mandy Telford said: "The government's message on top-up fees seems to change on an almost weekly basis. First, we were told that top-up fees were being introduced because cash-strapped universities needed the money - yet this week Tony Blair said they were needed to raise extra money for research.
"Ministers said they would stop all institutions from charging £3,000 and therefore force a market in higher education. Now they have said institutions can charge what they like and have gone conspicuously quiet on the issue of differential fees.
"Top-up fees will not raise the sort of cash universities need and will just put students from poorer backgrounds off going to university. It quite clear that the £3,000 cap is only in place at present to try to get the principle of higher differential fees through Parliament."
The only indication of any competition to emerge from the survey is between courses and subjects. Some institutions plan to charge according to the cost of providing a course. This is at odds with ministers, who say that top-up fees are justified by the premium graduates earn.
The questionnaire also asked institutions about the extent of any bursaries they envisaged offering. Half of the 20 institutions that provided detailed answers said it was too early to fix the value, 35 per cent proposed spending up to a third of the fee income on bursaries and the rest planned to spend between a third and a half.
According to the survey, most institutions will make a final decision on whether to charge variable fees next autumn. This information will be published in summer 2005, contained in prospectuses for entry in 2006.
- Senior officials at the Higher Education Funding Council for England are concerned that variable fees will "drive a coach and horses" through its cherished principle that similar courses should be funded at similar levels. The funding council plans to consult next year on how this principle might be revised in the light of legislation.
The government is prohibited from deducting from an institution's annual grant any money it makes from charging increased tuition fees to international students. It is also prevented from reducing institutions' grants under proposals to charge variable fees.