Poland should introduce university tuition fees within eight years, according to a government strategy unveiled by Anna Radziwill, the Deputy Education Minister.
Opposition politicians, students and the public have opposed the move.
There were calls for Ms Radziwill's resignation, warnings by legal experts that the Polish constitution guaranteed free access to higher education and cries of astonishment that any government would launch so unpopular a scheme in an election year.
In a 1999 nationwide opinion poll, more than 90 per cent of respondents considered it the state's duty to provide free higher education. But a report by the World Bank and the European Investment Bank noted the unfairness of the current system and urged the introduction of fees. It said it should be done gradually and backed up by a massive information campaign.
Ms Radziwill claimed that the introduction of fees, scholarships and loans would increase the prospects of impoverished young people. Less than half of Poland's student population study free of charge in state universities.
And, according to Ms Radziwill, those in free full-time higher education are those from better-off families, whose parents paid for private lessons and coaching to ensure they gained a full-time university place.
The children of the poor, who cannot afford coaching, end up on part-time correspondence or fee-paying courses. Fees for all (with grants where necessary) would abolish the inequality, Ms Radziwill said.
Polish students remain unconvinced. Grants would have to be raised considerably from the current level, which barely covers hostel accommodation and meals.
Arkadiusz Doczyk, head of the Students' Parliament of Poland, said the SPP was planning a "great debate" on the issue in September.