Ministers have agreed in principle to allow universities to charge top-up fees after unofficial negotiations with vice-chancellors, a senior MP has said.
Phil Willis, the Liberal Democrat education spokesman, said that agreement in principle on differentiated fees has been reached by the government and the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals. He said the agreement is to allow the Russell Group of research-led universities to charge different levels of tuition fees after the next general election.
If an agreement in principle has been reached it would make a mockery of the government's official position that future higher education funding should be the subject of an "honest" and open debate after the next general election.
Mr Willis, who was speaking during last week's post-Budget education debate in the Commons, said that the government had been holding unofficial talks with the CVCP and the Russell Group, which represents about 15 of the country's largest research institutions. The Russell Group is campaigning for differentiated fees, while the CVCP is officially carrying out a feasibility study.
Mr Willis challenged education minister Malcolm Wicks to deny the claims. Mr Wicks broadly repeated the position taken by education secretary David Blunkett, who has made it clear that education policy will remain opposed to top-up fees as long as he is in post.
But Mr Willis said: "The minister has not denied that the government is holding unofficial talks with the CVCP and the Russell Group about differential fees."
He added that it was clear, in the absence of sufficient public funding, why leading research universities were so keen to increase income from private sources. He told MPs that, while the previous Conservative government had spent 1.29 per cent of gross domestic product on higher education, Labour will be spending 1.14 per cent.
Mr Willis also asked why there was nothing in last week's budget to address student recruitment and retention. He said that fees were to blame, with the latest admissions figures showing overall applications 1.8 per cent down on last year.
The CVCP has denied that any such meetings have taken place between it and the government. It says that it cannot speak for individual vice-chancellors or the Russell Group. Sir Colin Campbell, vice-chancellor of Nottingham University, who is leading the Russell Group drive for differential fees, was unavailable for comment.