A key government justification for top-up fees will be undermined by next week's British Social Attitudes survey, which will show that taxpayers want public cash to be spent on university students rather than on nursery children.
This year's survey, the most comprehensive barometer of public opinion available, will reveal that while 10 per cent of people want any additional public money for education spent in nurseries, 14 per cent would rather see it spent on "students at university".
The 20th annual survey will show that support for education spending has increased from 50 per cent to almost 66 per cent in the period surveyed, and is now the second highest spending priority behind health.
Within education spending priorities, only higher education has seen its support increase, from 9 per cent in 1983 to 14 per cent.
Although 29 per cent of those surveyed still see investment in secondary schools as the priority, the findings, exclusive to The THES this week, will weaken ministers' arguments for top-up fees.
In a document defending the top-up fees policy, education secretary Charles Clarke says: "Is it right to further fund higher education at the expense of putting money into under-fives? If more taxpayers' money was available, other parts of education may have a greater claim."
Ted Wragg, co-author of the education chapter in the survey and professor of education at Exeter University, said: "Politicians always take public attitudes for granted and believe that they are striking a chord, but so often they are just wrong."
A Department for Education and Skills spokesman said: "The fact is that we have substantially increased public funding on higher education in this spending review period. We now spend an average of £5,300 on every university student, as opposed to only £1,800 on every three-year-old, and the white paper reforms will give universities even more funding. If we are really intent on closing the social divide, then we must focus our attention at the earliest age possible."
The survey will show support for the principle of students making some contribution to the cost of their study after graduation, as currently planned.
While a third of the public do not believe that any student should pay tuition fees after graduation (with a similar proportion opposing up-front fees), 64 per cent agree with the principle of a post-graduation contribution (with 16 per cent saying that everyone should pay).
But the authors point out that outright opposition to tuition fees crept up by 4 percentage points between 2000 and 2001, and the the questions asked did not specify how much students should contribute towards their tuition costs.
"The public, it seems, has reservations about moves to triple the existing fee rate," the report says. "It will be important to monitor future changes."
The survey will show that support for student grants has remained constant at about 60 per cent over 20 years, despite student funding changes. But the public is split over the government's drive to increase student numbers.
Some 46 per cent of people said that participation in higher education should be increased, while 45 per cent said participation was "about right". Just 5 per cent said participation should be reduced.
The public also supports plans to widen access. Some 75 per cent believed in 2002 that it was "very" or "fairly" important to encourage working-class students to go to university, reflecting a perception of middle-class bias in admissions.
Some 43 per cent believe that a student from a well-off family is more likely to get a place at university than a student from a poor background with the same qualifications, compared with only 3 per cent who believe the poor student would be favoured.
The report says it is "alarming" that 57 per cent of people who do not believe their children will go to university think that applicants from better-off backgrounds are favoured.