The Government has been secretly prompting key figures in the higher education sector to campaign for the removal of the £3,000 cap on top-up fees, The Times Higher can reveal.
When ministers pushed the controversial Higher Education Bill through Parliament last July, they made a commitment not to allow universities to exceed the £3,000 limit on top-up fees until at least 2010.
But sources who met No 10 officials recently were given the impression that the Government was keen for the sector to build up a "head of steam" well before 2010 in favour of lifting the ban. There was no suggestion that the Government intended to break its promise to maintain the current cap until 2010.
One source, who warned No 10 officials in a private meeting that universities needed to charge higher top-up fees to stay afloat, told The Times Higher : "They said that if various groups were to make a case for the cap to be lifted that wouldn't do any harm."
The source added: "They had to set the level at £3,000 to buy off the backbenchers. As far as they are concerned they want the cap gone, but they have said they won't do that so they need everyone else to do it for them."
Another key figure in the sector claimed to have been given a similar steer at a private meeting.
A document, released last week to The Times Higher under the Freedom of Information Act, shows that the Government considered raising the flat-rate fee by £1,000 a year, over four years, to £5,000 a year. It eventually opted for a £3,000 cap.
Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University, said that as almost all universities were charging £3,000 there was no variation in the market. He said: "If Tony Blair gets in with a substantial majority (in the forthcoming general election) he would feel sufficiently secure to implement what he wanted in the first place. My guess is it would be fairly soon after the election."
Labour MP Ian Gibson, one of the most vocal opponents of top-up fees, said:
"It was just a question of getting the principle of top-up fees in. They always knew £3,000 wasn't enough."
Michael Sterling, vice-chancellor of Birmingham University and chair of the Russell Group of universities, said: "Our position has always been that the cap is too low, so I don't need much encouragement to campaign."
A spokesperson for No 10 said this week: "There is no truth in these comments. Our policy on higher education has been clearly outlined and there are no plans to change it."