Vice-chancellors were set to make an unprecedented demand for increased funding for student support - all but calling for the reintroduction of maintenance grants - at their annual residential meeting this week.
The significant policy shift by Universities UK was due to be accompanied by a robust defence of the principle that students who can afford to pay towards the cost of their university tuition should do so. The move raises the spectre of higher tuition fees, or market-led top-up fees, to meet demands for investment in teaching and learning infrastructure from a limited pool of cash.
In his first public address as president of UUK, Roderick Floud was set to tell the annual meeting in Southampton yesterday that current student support arrangements were "mean and unequal" and needed an urgent rethink. He was expected to say that Universities UK would make the demand for more generous and coherent student support a campaigning priority and would present a fully costed new student support model in its submission to the Treasury's 2002 Spending Review.
"Up until now UUK has concentrated on trying to secure adequate funding for our core functions of teaching and research," he was due to say. "But as evidence of student hardship mounts, we must give greater priority to matters that affect the ability of well-qualified students to enter university and complete their courses, and might be damaging our efforts to widen participation."
He was expected to argue that subsidised student loans and the "plethora of bursary schemes" were "not adequate to sustain a reasonable standard of living" and were putting off poorer students. "Unfortunately what we have ended up with is a myriad of frankly mean and unequal opportunities for individual students to fund their living costs."
UUK will call on ministers to sweep away the present bursary schemes for a "single, uncomplicated system of student living support awards for people from low-income families".
But a strong defence of the principle that students should contribute to the cost of their education was also expected.
Professor Floud was due to say that while reviews of student finance in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland had all led to real or proposed increases in support for student maintenance, each had retained the principle of students or graduates contributing to the costs of tuition.
"UUK has supported the principle that students or parents who can afford to should make a contribution towards the costs of their higher education. We stand by that," he was expected to say.
"Tuition fees have unhelpfully become shorthand for the whole debate about student finance... The real area of concern is not fees but living costs."
But even before the vice-chancellors' meeting, union leaders had fired a warning shot from the Trades Union Congress conference in Brighton that any move by Universities UK on student support must not hand the government the political justification to increase tuition fees.
At the TUC meeting, interrupted because of the terrorist attack on the United States, the Association of University Teachers and lecturers' union Natfhe were agreeing a joint demand, with the National Union of Students, for the abolition of tuition fees and the restoration of student maintenance grants.
AUT director of communication Andrew Pakes said: "The great danger is that individual vice-chancellors will do the dirty work of government and provide a political justification to increase tuition fees. We are jointly clear that we do not want to see vice-chancellors opening the door to further student contributions."
Education secretary Estelle Morris called off her appearance as a result of emergency cabinet discussions on national security. Her replacement, higher education minister Margaret Hodge, was not expected to make any policy announcements and "would not speak in any depth about student support", said an aide.
However, prime minister Tony Blair made strong hints in a newspaper interview earlier in the week that the government was ready to review student support.
"It is important that we make sure that there are no barriers to people going to university. It is an issue that came up a lot in the election campaign and we have to make sure we've got the right way forward for the future. That won't mean just returning to the old system because we can't afford that," he said.
"Whatever system we use is going to require some contribution from the person going through it. It is... important to realise whether you borrow or whether you pay it back by graduate tax, you're still paying something back."