Elite universities are divided on the issue of top-up fees, and the decision by new education secretary Charles Clarke to delay the government's higher education strategy paper until January threatens to divide them further.
At a meeting of the Russell Group of top universities last week, a hard core - Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College, London, University College London, Warwick and Nottingham - discussed plans to adopt a joint approach to top-up fees.
The meeting fuelled speculation that the six were preparing to go private, loading the full costs of tuition on to students. But rather than galvanising them into united action, the meeting only highlighted divisions in the Russell Group. Not only did they fail to agree fee levels, but some members remain opposed to any top-up fees.
Cambridge issued a statement this week saying that it had no plans to introduce top-up fees. But the university is understood to have indicated at the Russell Group meeting that it might consider fees of about £3,000. It is particularly concerned about access for poorer students.
At the other end of the scale, Imperial is making plans to charge students at least the full cost of their education, currently £10,500, and possibly £15,000. UCL is looking at charging £7,000, while the figure for Warwick is £6,000. Oxford is believed to want to charge between £7,000 and £8,000. The current flat-rate annual tuition fee is £1,100.
David Greenaway, the Nottingham economist and pro vice-chancellor responsible for the report by the Russell Group two years ago calling for increased fees, said that tuition fees of £4,000 a year delivered across the system would raise £3 billion a year.
Edinburgh and Glasgow universities, the only Scottish members of the Russell Group, have consistently opposed top-up fees. Scottish students pay no fees up front.
Tim O'Shea, who this term succeeded Lord Sutherland as Edinburgh's principal, said: "I am opposed to raising tuition fees as this will work against widening participation."
Mr Clarke's decision to postpone until January the strategy document, which was due later this month, is the third delay for the paper.
It was announced originally in summer 2001 for publication early in 2002. It was postponed until spring, and then until November this year.
Announcing the delay on Wednesday , Mr Clarke said: "It is important for me as the new secretary of state to have sufficient time to engage fully in this key policy issue.
"I am determined to ensure that we enable our world-class institutions to compete globally. That is why, as the prime minister informed Parliament this afternoon, we have decided to publish the higher education strategy paper in January."
At prime minister's questions on Wednesday, Tony Blair said: " The issue is how we make sure our top universities get the freedom and independence they want (and) that they should be able to guarantee access for the poorest."
Michael Sterling, vice-chancellor of Birmingham University, said he was very concerned about the postponement. He said: "I don't see why it should depend on a change of secretary of state."
A spokesperson for Universities UK said: "We are concerned about continuing delays but if a delay in producing the strategy paper is used to work through the implications of its proposals more thoroughly and to involve the sector - as we have proposed - then this would be time well spent."
The Coalition of Modern Universities' chief executive Colin Matheson said:
"The uncertainty and insecurity is damaging higher education. CMU institutions are, however, keen that the new secretary of state listens to all universities - not just the elite."
A spokesman for the Department for Education and Skills said that the annual grant letter from Hefce, which will detail funding for 2002-03, would be issued at the same time as the strategy document instead of in early December.
It will include details of funding over the spending review period 2003-04 to 2005-06 and the extra student numbers that higher education institutions will be expected to recruit over the period.
* Mr Clarke has appointed two new special advisers to the DFES. Lisa Tremble has been a policy adviser to Mr Clarke for some time. Robert Hill moves from the No 10 policy unit, where he advised on health matters. Special advisers tend to follow the secretaries of state who appoint them. Estelle Morris appointed Will Cavendish and Chris Boffey as her advisers. They will be replaced by Ms Tremble and Mr Hill.