Vice-chancellors' uneasy support for variable fees could shatter at their annual conference at Warwick University next week, undermining education secretary Charles Clarke's latest campaign to win over Labour rebels. They may opt instead to support a flat-fee proposal.
Sir David Watson, vice-chancellor of Brighton University and chair of Universities UK's longer-term strategy group, wants them to back an early-day motion put down by Anne Campbell, Labour MP for Cambridge, that calls for a "measured increase in fees across the board".
Sir David intends to initiate debate on the motion at the conference. The flat-rate fee would be about £2,000, Sir David said. Ms Campbell's motion has so far attracted 74 signatures. About 170 MPs have signed early-day motions opposing top-up fees.
To date, vice-chancellors have given qualified support to the white-paper proposals to allow universities to set their own fees up to £3,000.
Ivor Crewe, president of UUK, described the proposals as the "only game in town" and warned of dire financial consequences for universities if they were defeated by Labour rebels.
It is an uneasy truce. UUK said: "Vice-chancellor support for a student contribution paid back after graduation is firm. Support for variable fees is more complicated." This Achilles' heel makes Sir David's challenge serious.
In a letter she sent to all vice-chancellors in August, Ms Campbell says she recognises the funding crisis many universities face. She wants a flat-rate fee to be combined with state scholarships that would be "means-tested, portable and based on merit".
She believes that under the variable-fee proposals, fear of debt will deter poor students from applying to elite universities such as Cambridge. In its response to the white paper, Cambridge University also expressed concern about student hardship and "the risk that fear of debt may discourage potential students".
Ms Campbell has so far had 13 responses from vice-chancellors to her letter, half of them positive. In his response, Sir David encourages Ms Campbell to take her proposals further. He wants all students to pay a flat-rate fee, with the money now spent on means-testing being put into higher education or improved maintenance grants.
Sir David is pushing for these proposals to be included as an amendment to the higher education bill, or even written into it. The government is expected to bring in legislation in the Queen's speech in November.
The education secretary told the Association of Commonwealth Universities conference in Belfast this week said that closing the funding gap faced by universities through taxpayers' contributions "simply won't happen". Mr Clarke said taxpayers' money was better spent on under-fives than over-18s, adding that compared with fees charged by other countries the government's proposals were conservative.
Acknowledging that the government faced a serious challenge on variable fees, he said: "Much of our political opposition comes from the idea that varying fees is simply unjust." Mr Clarke argued that many countries had already accepted the diverse nature of the university system, which "cannot be treated as a single unit with the same price tag attached to every course and every institution".
In an attempt to shore up university support, new higher education minister Alan Johnson met representatives from the Coalition for Modern Universities this week. Michael Driscoll, CMU chair, said: "We sought assurances that modern universities would be free to charge fees as they saw fit and were given that assurance."
Mr Clarke reiterated in Belfast that the government was not in favour of "cartels" operating to set prices. Professor Driscoll said: "The £3,000 is set so low that it would be hard to argue that a cartel was operating if all universities charged it."