Controversial proposals for the introduction of top-up fees were condemned this week by economists, students, headteachers, lecturers' unions and further education leaders, while vice-chancellors called them "premature".
The proposals, contained in a report published last week by a group of economists led by Nottingham University's David Greenaway, were more likely to lead to students from poorer backgrounds being deterred from entering university than to greater access, the groups and individuals agreed.
Student union leaders at Nottingham University, who have launched an online "fee-fighter" campaign, said the report ignored evidence that upfront fees combined with scholarships left many students from lower middle income groups unable to afford courses at top universities.
James Ballard, vice-president of Nottingham's student union, who joined the economists on their visits to American universities, said: "We found that fees combined with scholarships haven't even worked in the States as far as access is concerned... This fact did not feature in the report."
Another group of economists at Nottingham released the findings of their own research this week, which they said showed that there was too much uncertainty about the financial returns of gaining a degree to justify an income-contingent loans system to pay for fees, as proposed in the Greenaway report.
The Association of Colleges said fees would "skew admissions even more in the direction of the affluent".
The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals said debate about specific funding options was "premature". Sir William Taylor, who is heading a CVCP review of funding options, said: "This debate is about much more than tuition fees."
Geoffrey Copland, vice-chancellor of Westminster University and spokesman for the Coalition of Modern Universities, said: "The report is a contribution to the debate, but the CMU would be very concerned about anything that might act as a disincentive to entering higher education."
Baroness Blackstone, the higher education minister, reiterated the government's opposition to top-up fees.
Letters, page 15