OXFORD and Cambridge universities may enter a gentlemen's agreement to increase their numbers of state school students as a condition of keeping part of the Pounds 35 million subsidy for college fees.
This week the universities' vice chancellors met education secretary David Blunkett for the first time to discuss "issues around the college fee and issues about access".
This year, the proportion of state school applicants accepted has fallen at both universities. They insist they do not want to introduce quotas and will admit candidates on the basis of ability alone. Ministers are believed to have little sympathy with arguments to keep the college fee as long as the proportion of state school students at the universities is low.
At Oxford, the percentage of places awarded to state school pupils fell from 43.6 per cent to 41.6 per cent this year, while the percentage of successful independent school candidates rose from 47.5 to 49.1. Cambridge admitted 47 per cent from state schools, compared with 48 per cent last year. About 45 per cent of places were filled by those from independent schools.
Both Oxford and Cambridge say they intend to increase state school intake to at least 60 per cent - the proportion of state school pupils who gain three A grades at A level.
Colleges at both universities are under increasing pressure to work more closely together. Last week Chris Goodall, an Oxford businessman, published a report urging them to consider combining some administrative, catering and library functions to meet a 71 per cent rise in total college expenditure in the past eight years.
Clause 19 of the higher education bill published last week suggests the government intends to pay any extra Oxbridge college fee money centrally. John Flemming, warden of Wadham College, Oxford, said this would be unwelcome but not unexpected.