Ministers will face increased pressure to raise student tuition fees if the government does not give universities enough cash in next month's comprehensive spending review.
The THES has found growing support for higher fees, crucially among vice-chancellors of post-1992 universities.
Vice-chancellors are set to reconsider differential market-rate tuition fees for home undergraduates at their September conference if the spending review fails to deliver.
Roderick Floud, provost of London Guildhall University and president of Universities UK, is not opposed in principle to increasing the maximum fee but he said this was a decision for the government.
Professor Floud said: "It is clear that the demands of higher education are not diminishing. We will have to wait to see how the government responds and we will formulate policy after that."
Many vice-chancellors, especially those in new universities, have changed their minds about higher fees in the face of a real-terms cut in core teaching funds next year and the failure of the government to fully fund research. Support for differential fees had been confined to a handful of leading research universities in the Russell Group.
Most vice-chancellors doubt that the Treasury will provide the £10 billion that UUK says is needed between 2003 and 2006 to meet the government's 50 per cent participation target for 2010 while maintaining standards.
Three approaches are gaining support among vice-chancellors:
* Raising the means-tested maximum that universities can charge, currently £1,075
* Charging more for popular courses, for degrees that are more expensive to deliver, such as dentistry, and for courses that offer graduates higher earning opportunities, such as law
* Fee premiums at those universities perceived as prestigious.
But all vice-chancellors agree that the poorest students must receive financial support, perhaps funded from higher fees, and that the government should not claw back extra fee income by cutting teaching grants.
David Melville, vice-chancellor of Kent University, said: "I suspect that there will be action to have some kind of deregulation of the fees system. We need a five-to-ten-year strategy to shift the system."
Gillian Slater, vice-chancellor of Bournemouth University, said: "I think that fees can vary between students but I do not believe that they should vary between institutions."
Adrian Smith, principal of Queen Mary, University of London, said: "I would be surprised if differential fees do not become a consideration if things go pear-shaped in the spending review. It is hard to see where else we are going to get the money."
Diana Green, vice-chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University and chairwoman of the steering group overseeing UUK's student-debt project, said: "I have no objection to those who are affluent paying a higher contribution to tuition, providing greater support goes to those who would otherwise not go into higher education."
Geoffrey Copland, rector of Westminster University and chairman of the Coalition of Modern Universities, said: "I do not rule out differential fees in principle but whatever the funding mechanism, it must not act as a deterrent to the less well-off."
Sir Colin Campbell, vice-chancellor of Nottingham University, whose pro vice-chancellor David Greenaway co-authored a Russell Group report supporting differential fees, said: "There is a growing realisation that something must be done and differential fees for non-profit-making organisations are the most equitable way forward."
Mandy Telford, the National Union of Students president-elect, said:
"Top-up fees would lead to a ghettoisation of higher education, where the fortunate rich pick and choose their course and institution while the poorest students are forced on to the cheapest courses."
The Department for Education and Skills is looking at higher tuition fees as part of its on-going student-support review. The results are due in the autumn.
Chancellor Gordon Brown this week signalled more money for science and innovation and support for people wishing to study at college and university.