The four-person panel will produce a series of reports to assess the effect of almost trebling maximum tuition fees to £9,000 a year from this autumn, looking in particular at young people from poor and middle-income families.
Chaired by former Observer editor Will Hutton, principal of Hertford College, Oxford, the commission will also includes Sutton Trust chairman Peter Lampl, Stephen Machin, professor of economics at University College London, and Times journalist Libby Purves, who presents the BBC Radio 4 education programme The Learning Curve.
Supported by the Sutton Trust, it will track the impact of the higher fees at English universities and produce three reports a year over the next three years.
Mr Hutton said: “It is incredibly important that we provide an independent check on the biggest reforms for higher education in a generation, particularly looking at what impact higher fees have on prospective students from less privileged backgrounds.
“We will be keeping an open mind; the aim will be to produce a dispassionate and authoritative analysis of the data as it emerges.”
The commission has been announced days before the publication of final statistics on university applications on Monday.
Interim figures released by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service on 4 January showed 22,000 fewer students had applied to university by 15 December compared to the same time in 2010 – a 6.4 per cent fall.
Most of this fall was due to UK-based applicants, which were down 7.6 per cent (23,000).
However, Ucas chief executive Mary Curnock Cook said there had been a “late surge” in applications, which, if continued, would see applications fall less sharply than predicted.
Commenting on the commission, Liam Burns, president of the National Union of Students, said: “We’ve seen worrying signs that there are fewer university applicants, many of whom have seen their ambitions suffer at the hands of student number caps in previous years and now face new barriers to access.
“A balanced and truly independent analysis that puts aside any of the panellists preconceptions about the merits or otherwise of the fees system is vital to ensure vulnerable students do not have to abandon their ambitions in higher education.”