Oxford University is taking legal advice over whether it could extend its "Robin Hood" system of redistribution of wealth among colleges if threatened funding cuts are implemented next year.
The university wants to know how far charity law will permit richer colleges, which already pay a voluntary "tax" to those with fewer resources, to use endowments to help those in greater funding trouble.
But it fears colleges' own charitable status, which in some cases bars them from running up deficits, could prevent them offering charity to neighbours.
The Robin Hood option is under consideration as Oxford and Cambridge await a decision from ministers over the fate of college fees - extra funds paid by local authorities to colleges for each student taught.
Sir Ron Dearing's report on the future of higher education, published in July, recommended a review of the fees, which help fund provision such as tutorial teaching, libraries and pastoral support within individual colleges.
Oxford colleges are devising contingency plans in case the fees, worth pounds 18m annually, are axed. Cambridge, which gains pounds 17m, claims it is concentrating on putting the case for the funding to remain untouched.
John Flemming, warden of Wadham College, Oxford, and chairman of the Conference of Colleges, said the loss of the full pounds 35m could mean 1,000 job losses, academic and non-academic, between the two universities. That could have a devastating effect on the tutorial system, under which Oxbridge students are taught in ones and twos, which both universities consider crucial in retaining world-class quality.
Redistribution of funds from rich colleges, even if legally permissible, would not be enough to save poorer neighbours if the full college fee is cut, Mr Flemming said. However, it might be viable if only a portion of the money was withheld by the Government. He added: "Everybody feels we are all in this together."
A further option being examined at Oxford is the possibility of charging future students fees to make up for the loss of public funding. The charges would be levied on top of tuition fees of up to pounds 1,000 a year already planned by the government.
Doubt remains over whether asking students to cover for college fees would fall foul of proposed legislation to prevent universities charging top-up fees in addition to the standard tuition fee.
Oxford is also aware that it could not claim to be maintaining or improving access for non-traditional students if it charged fees without taking into account ability to pay. Mr Flemming said: "Any fee would probably only be paid by half the students, so in order to replace a pounds 1,000 college fee you would have to charge a pounds 2,000 fee which you would then waive for half the students."Reuse content