THE government may fall foul of European law if it legislates to prevent British universities charging top-up fees, it was claimed this week.
Liberal Democrat education spokesmen have warned that British universities could challenge the government in the European Court of Human Rights and European Court of Justice if it decides to introduce legislation to stop universities charging above the Pounds 1,000 means-tested tuition fee.
Phil Willis, higher and further education spokesman for the Lib Dems, said that such a challenge could be successful because European counterparts already charge differing amounts for tuition.
He said: "We have talked to lawyers and the advice is that the government would find it extremely difficult to justify top-up fees legislation."
A handful of universities have warned prospective students that they may charge top-up fees but none has stated it actually will.
Government spokesmen have said new legislation could prevent universities charging top-up fees.
Gary Attle, of Cambridge lawyers Mills and Reeve, said: "Parliament is the sovereign body and if it did legislate then the balance of power in any battle with the universities would rest with parliament. The only challenge could come through Europe."
Mr Attle said the government may decide it is easier to reduce the block grants of universities which charge top-up fees, but such subordinate legislation might not stand up to a university challenge.
The Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals has taken advice from London law firm Eversheds and understands that even if the government legislated universities could always levy other charges. Tony Bruce, policy director, said: "For example, they could make it a requirement that a student bring a computer or they might introduce library fees."
Leaders of Oxford and Cambridge universities met the Higher Education Funding Council for England this week to discuss college fees.
John Flemming, chairman of Oxford's Conference of Colleges, described it as a "full and frank preliminary skirmish". The campaign to keep the fees would continue, including appeals to former graduates, he said. In his last oration as vice chancellor of Oxford Peter North said the loss of the college fee could destroy Oxbridge's "competitive position".