Prime minister Tony Blair held a secret meeting this week with the leading candidates to introduce top-up fees in a bid to galvanise support for the policy amid growing opposition.
Mr Blair called the vice-chancellors of the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Warwick, Bristol, Nottingham, Central England, Sussex and Imperial College London to Downing Street in an attempt to forge an agreement on the necessity of higher tuition fees.
Education secretary Charles Clarke, Sir Howard Newby, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, and Mr Blair's adviser Andrew Adonis were also at Monday's meeting.
Critics complained that the group was skewed in favour of the top research institutions and that the only vice-chancellor of a new university present, Peter Knight from UCE, was on record as supporting the deregulation of fees.
Baroness Warwick, chief executive of Universities UK, said: "It is important that discussions involve all universities."
More than 70 Labour MPs have signed a motion opposing top-ups.
The meeting could be seen as an audacious move designed to outflank sceptics, including chancellor Gordon Brown. It became clear this week that Mr Brown preferred a graduate tax and doubted that universities' structures were up to managing the additional income that top-up fees would generate.
Vice-chancellors discussed a range of fee figures at the meeting. They did not sign up to an agreed amount, but Mr Blair and Mr Clarke are understood to have been told that fees had to rise above the current £1,100 a year.
Higher education minister Margaret Hodge hinted last week at a UUK conference on student support that students could be expected to pay fees of up to £5,000 a year.
Differential fees were also discussed on Monday, and a broad agreement emerged that if tuition charges were allowed to rise, then all universities should be able to charge higher sums for expensive or popular courses.
There was recognition of the role played by Imperial rector Sir Richard Sykes, who highlighted the issue when he said that fees at his institution would have to be pitched at about £10,500 a year to cover the actual cost of tuition, and perhaps £15,000 if the college were to provide scholarships for poor students. Fees at this level were seen as unrealistic by Mr Blair and Mr Clarke.
A graduate tax was discussed at the meeting but was seen as problematic, not only because it would take so long to raise much-needed cash for universities, but also because it would scupper any chances of encouraging greater giving by alumni.
Opponents of top-up fees have said that people would be deterred from taking relatively low-paid public-sector jobs. The vice-chancellors agreed that universities had a duty to educate people who would go on to work in key public services. But they argued that such students would be protected because the National Health Service paid fees for nurses and healthcare specialists allied to medicine, while the Teacher Training Agency paid for teachers, who have their student debts paid by the state.
The meeting came as Mr Clarke published a higher education discussion paper that suggests a number of radical reforms as part of the higher education strategic review, due in January.
A spokeswoman for the Department for Education and Skills said that responses could inform the strategy document but that the debate would continue after its publication.
The paper echoes much of the discussion at the Downing Street meeting, indicating that there is little difference in the way the prime minister and his education secretary view funding.
It asks: "Is it right that every course should cost the same when the benefits can be so different?"
But the paper also hints that the preferred option may be for a hybrid system incorporating higher upfront tuition fees and some form of graduate contribution.
It questions the present system's focus on parental income rather than graduates' future earnings.