It is understood that UUK, which is led by Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter, asked its members to sign the letter with a view to publishing it on 8 December, the eve of the parliamentary vote on fees.
If every vice-chancellor had agreed, the letter could have given the embattled members of the coalition government a major boost, particularly Liberal Democrat MPs, who signed a pledge before the election promising to oppose any increase in tuition fees.
However, a number of vice-chancellors have refused UUK’s request and are angry at the umbrella group’s attempt to take what they see as a political stance on the issue.
Times Higher Education also understands that some vice-chancellors voiced their discontent at the move during a members’ meeting on Friday, but UUK decided to push ahead with the letter anyway.
The controversy came as the government attempted to sweeten the pill on fees by fleshing out proposals to offer students from the poorest backgrounds free tuition.
Under the plans, children who received free school meals, as well as those from other disadvantaged groups, could get up to two free years at university as part of the £150 million National Scholarship Programme (NSP). The government says that about 18,000 young people a year could benefit from the plan.
One idea would be for the first year to be funded by the university, with the NSP then funding the students’ final year so that “those who stay the course are rewarded”.
A steering group, which includes Aaron Porter, president of the National Union of Students, and Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of UUK, has been set up to advise the government on the proposals.