More than two-thirds of the public are opposed to students paying more towards their tuition, an ICM poll for The THES carried out after publication of last week's white paper has revealed.
But a clear majority believes that a university education makes economic sense despite debts of up to £20,000 or more on graduation, because of the higher potential earning power a degree brings.
Only per cent of those questioned in a telephone poll last weekend supported a shift from the general taxpayer to students, despite a consensus view that graduates enjoy an earnings premium over their working lives. Across the whole sample, 65 per cent said that students should not pay more.
Backing for higher student contributions was significantly higher among men (30 per cent) than women (24 per cent), and among people aged 55-64 (31 per cent). Younger people were most strongly opposed: 76 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds and 68 per cent of 25 to 34-year-olds rejected a higher student contribution.
Opposition was particularly marked among people whose own education had continued beyond 19 (73 per cent were against higher student contributions compared with 60 per cent of those whose education had finished at 18), and among parents of secondary school-aged children (72 per cent).
The economic value of a university education was recognised by 61 per cent of the total questioned, despite the consequent debts, with 33 per cent failing to see any value.
Men were more inclined than women to see the economic benefits. While 65 per cent of men thought it was worthwhile and 30 per cent did not, only 57 per cent of women agreed, with 36 per cent in disagreement.
Older people were more likely to identify the economic benefits (70 per cent of people aged 55-64 said it was worthwhile against 23 per cent who felt it was not). But, especially worrying for the government, the youngest age group questioned (18 to 24) was among the most sceptical. While 60 per cent were convinced of the economic advantages, 38 per cent were not.
While the professional and managerial classes needed little convincing, social classes C2 and DE recorded the lowest recognition of the economic value of a degree, with 38 and 39 per cent respectively saying a degree was not worth the likely debt.
Those who had ended their full-time education after the age of 19 were significantly more certain of its economic value (65 per cent said it was worthwhile against 28 per cent who said it was not) than those who had not continued beyond 18 (59 per cent against 35 per cent).
ICM polled a nationally representative random sample of 1,000 people by telephone between January 24 and January 26.
GENERAL PUBLIC'S REACTION TO THE WHITE PAPER
Base: 1,000 people
Source: THES/ICM poll