The Liberal Democrat leadership think their party's stated policy to phase out tuition fees is "complete nonsense", according to Universities UK's chief executive.
Nicola Dandridge said that "visceral" hostility to fees among party activists was not shared by senior figures. "Even though the leadership have told us it is complete nonsense, it is pretty clear the grass roots feel passionate about this," she said in a speech to the Universities Human Resources conference in Leicester last week. "The dynamics of how (Lib Dem leader) Nick Clegg is going to play that - goodness knows."
Ms Dandridge raised the spectre of 25 per cent cuts to the academy's funding - citing forecasts for all unprotected state budgets by the Institute for Fiscal Studies - coupled with a Lib Dem block on any fee increase recommended by Lord Browne's review of funding.
The review is the "only game in town" for universities looking to boost their income in the midst of government cuts, she argued.
"The nightmare scenario is that higher education gets 25 per cent cuts, but there is no reprieve from Lord Browne because it is blocked by a Lib Dem influence in the coalition government, and so we've nowhere to go," she said.
Ms Dandridge was speaking before the Lib Dems' stance was clarified by a coalition document, which states that if the government's response to Lord Browne's report is one Lib Dem MPs cannot accept, they will be allowed to abstain from voting on the issue.
Prior to the election, 54 of the Lib Dems' 57 MPs signed a National Union of Students pledge to vote against any rise in fees. Mr Clegg, the deputy prime minister, who represents student-heavy Sheffield Hallam, and Vince Cable, secretary of state with responsibility for universities, were signatories.
Ms Dandridge said the sector must not appear to invite cuts by talking about them, and that UUK would fight reductions such as those forecast by the IFS. Although she said she had no insider information on the fees review, she added there was "a feeling" that Lord Browne "is very open to increased marketisation and ... increasing the fees cap".
On politicians' attitudes to pay, she said: "The perception, particularly among Conservatives, is that money from tuition fees has gone on staff pay." She said this was partly true, but it had been "investment in staff that has led to improvements in the student experience".