Oxford University is taking legal advice on whether it can levy money from richer colleges to help pay for their worse-off neighbours. It is also consulting lawyers on how far charity law would stop colleges running up a deficit.
The moves are part of the university's efforts to set up contingency plans should the government carry out its threat to cease paying college fees. Meetings on the fees issue will take place between Oxford, Cambridge and the Higher Education Funding Council for England next week.
John Flemming, warden of Wadham College, Oxford and chairman of the Conference of Colleges, said: "The obvious question to be considered is diversion from rich colleges to poorer colleges on a larger scale than takes place at the moment."
While there are already mechanisms for redistributing some wealth between colleges, it is done on a relatively small scale and on a goodwill basis. It would be necessary to establish a stronger legal basis for the arrangement if the sums involved are to be larger, said Mr Flemming.
He said certain individual colleges had debated the possibility of becoming independent and relying on income from foreign fee-paying students to subsidise those from poorer backgrounds. But it would be difficult because the university rather than the colleges received public funding.
* how the elite plan to stay that way, page 8
* FE funding, page 9
* an awful warning, page 14