The prospect of variable top-up fees in Northern Ireland has split the province's two universities.
Queen's University Belfast feels top-ups would improve university finances, but Ulster University disagrees, believing they would reduce access.
They were responding to news that Barry Gardiner, minister for employment and learning, had launched a public consultation on whether to follow England in introducing fees and graduate repayments.
He described as "perverse" the fact that 30 per cent of Northern Ireland students in England would provide funds to improve standards in English universities, while students in Northern Ireland did not support investment in the province's universities.
While both institutions welcomed the government's recognition that more investment was needed, they disagreed about whether top-ups were the way forward. A Queen's spokesperson said: "Variable fees are a crucial element.
Fixed fees remove flexibility and that is not in the interests of students or the community."
But Gerry McKenna, vice-chancellor of UU, feared it would lead to "a two-tier system based on affordability not academic ability." UU wants to see the reintroduction of means-tested grants of up to £5,000 a year, alongside tuition fees and bursaries.