Two-thirds of UK vice-chancellors are in favour of charging higher tuition fees or view them as inevitable, according to a poll by The THES .
The results reveal a major shift in favour of top-up fees, reflecting higher education's desperate need for money and the government's determination to shift the balance of funding from state to private - namely student - sources.
Nineteen of the 46 vice-chancellors who responded to the survey wanted undergraduate tuition fees to be raised, while ten were uncommitted but viewed them as inevitable. Many were waiting to see whether the government would signal higher fees in its higher education strategy document, due in January.
Top-up fees were ruled out in this parliament by the Labour Party manifesto. But this week, prime minister Tony Blair left open the possibility of passing legislation for their future introduction during this term.
Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith asked Mr Blair to rule out legislation this parliament. Mr Blair refused to do so, saying that the government would abide by its manifesto. Mr Blair added: "As for proposals that the government comes up with, I'm afraid you will have to await the outcome of the (higher education) review."
The THES poll found that higher charges were opposed by 15 vice-chancellors, many of whom head Scottish universities that do not levy upfront fees. But some of those opposing higher fees are still preparing for their introduction and are examining different models for their operation.
The level of proposed fees ranged from a doubling of the present £1,100 a year to a hike of up to £6,000 a year. Imperial College, London, has calculated that it would need to charge £10,500 a year to cover tuition costs, which could mean it having to charge up to £15,000 a year to make any surplus.
Those actively and tacitly supporting higher fees say that any income raised this way would need to be in addition to, not in place of, the existing teaching grant from the state.
But while some vice-chancellors argued for a higher flat-rate fee imposed across all universities and courses, others wanted to charge whatever students were prepared to pay.
Some wanted to see institutions charging fee premiums. Others argued for fee levels differentiated by course, with higher fees charged for popular courses and courses such as law, which tend to lead to well-paid jobs. Many wanted differentiation by institution and course.
However, the poll also shed light on the vehement opposition among many vice-chancellors to any form of top-up fees.
Malcolm McVicar, vice-chancellor of the University of Central Lancashire, said: "Differential fees would be a disaster for British higher education. They would destroy equality of access and negate widening participation."
He added: "They would set higher education back 40 years."
Dr McVicar is calling on new universities to mount a campaign against higher fees. He said: "There is no point in keeping our powder dry. This is it."
Most of the vice-chancellors responding to the poll said that they were preparing for the introduction of fees, although many said that work was at an early stage.
This week, Imperial students calculated that the college would have to rely on the public funding of teaching until 2146 before it could afford to run its own bursary system for those who could not afford the proposed fees. The students calculated that the college needs £2.2 billion at today's prices to waive the cost of higher education for those who could not afford it.