Labour peer and vice-chancellors' chief Diana Warwick admitted this week that the abolition of maintenance grants had damaged efforts to widen participation in higher education by the poor.
She made her admission as it became clear that many universities would accept differential tuition fees if the government restored maintenance grants.
Baroness Warwick, chief executive of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, who took the Labour Party whip on her elevation to the Lords last year, was speaking at a CVCP fringe meeting at the Liberal Democrat conference in Bournemouth.
She said that while widening participation was complex, the removal of grants had not been helpful. "I do not think that universities can say it is not our problem. They must become engaged in partnership with schools. But the big problem is in maintenance costs. That's the real problem."
Philip Collins, director of the Social Market Foundation think- tank and chair of the fringe meeting, asked Baroness Warwick if she was saying that the removal of grants had been unhelpful in terms of access.
Baroness Warwick said it did not help. She added that widening participation for people from the poorest backgrounds was not simply a question of finance.
Earlier she described efforts to widen participation among the poorest people as "the final frontier". While acknowledging the role of universities in promoting access, Baroness Warwick indicated that the problem was linked with people's perceptions and aspirations. She asked:
"Why do so many young people switch off education even aged 13?" She also said that the challenge faced by universities was to deliver on the top-down pressures of research excellence and the bottom-up pressures of access and institutional diversity.
She said: "The question remains: can all universities deliver both access and excellence? The answer seems to be 'yes' but not in equal measure and equal fashion."
Baroness Warwick said that universities would be deceiving themselves if they thought state funding could be guaranteed in the longer term. She said that there should be a balance of contributions from government, the private sector and from the students who benefit from the system.
The THES has learned that support for fees is growing steadily among vice-chancellors of both pre and post-1992 universities. But varying levels of fees would be acceptable, particularly in new universities, only if some form of non-repayable maintenance grant was reintroduced.
Latest figures for 1998-99, when fees were introduced and grants were halved in preparation for their axeing from 1999-2000, show that applications from the poorest school-leavers stayed nearly stable while the total number of applicants grew. Figures for last year are due out soon.
The initial figures are causing many vice-chancellors to reconsider their position on fees. The poorest students pay no fees but can easily accumulate loan debts of more than Pounds 10,000. Students from middle-income backgrounds also find that maintenance comprises the greatest part of their debt. The new applications figures will say nothing about the numbers of poorer people who might have applied had they had grants.
Differential fees are being considered as part of the CVCP review of funding. They are seen as a way of increasing income when faced with diminishing public funding, but differential, or top-up, fees are prohibited by legislation. Vice-chancellors insisted at their annual residential meeting in Stockton last week that maintenance grants should be added to the list of review options.
There will also be an examination of the Cubie report recommendations, which resulted in the abolition of upfront fees in Scotland and the introduction of student bursaries. Dearing report recommendations for a flat-rate fee for all students and the retention of maintenance grants will be re-examined.
Geoffrey Copland, vice-chancellor of Westminster University and chairman of the Coalition of Modern Universities, said that half of students already pay tuition fees because they study part time or at postgraduate level or come from overseas.
Dr Copland said: "We cannot have one set of rules for full time and one set for part time. If there was a funding system that properly supported higher education and did not deter people, then it would be difficult for us to object to that."
John Tarrant, vice-chancellor of Huddersfield University, said: "I would say that people had become more open-minded about... all the options, not specifically in relation to top-up fees."
Support for grants is buoyed by the government's partial undoing of its own policy on student maintenance. Limited, non-repayable bursaries - grants in all but name - have been introduced piecemeal for poorer students over the past year.
Liberal Democrat conference, page 3 Opinion, page 14