The government's hopes of limiting £9,000-a-year tuition fees to only a handful of universities receive a setback today.
Sir Martin Harris, director general of the Office for Fair Access (Offa) – the watchdog that will rule on universities' applications to charge higher fees – made it clear he was not responsible for carrying out ministers' wishes that the maximum charge should only be levied "in exceptional circumstances".
In an interview with The Independent to coincide with guidance on how Offa will decide on the applications, he said: "I think it's accepted now that that is not my responsibility."
In effect, this means any university able to make a convincing case about the measures it takes to attract students from poorer backgrounds will be allowed to charge the maximum. All universities which want to charge students more than the £6,000-a-year minimum from September 2012 will have to sign an access agreement with Offa explaining how they will attract disadvantaged students.
However, the guidance issued today urges Britain's leading universities to consider waiving fees for the least well off. Such a move would help the Treasury, as it has budgeted for an average fee of £7,500 being levied.
The country's elite universities are also told in the guidance that they should more than double the amount they spend on recruiting disadvantaged students. Sir Martin said that progress in improving access had "remained virtually flat".
In a foreword to vice-chancellors, he writes: "We now ask you to consider stepping up your outreach work [visiting schools to try to persuade disadvantaged teenagers to apply]. We are also encouraging you to consider the use of fee waivers, which could have a stronger role to play than bursaries."
Sir Martin acknowledged it was difficult to predict how students would react – the introduction of £3,000-a-year tuition fees in 2006 did not affect numbers.
"But 2012 is not 2006," he warned. "Even though the threshold for repaying student loans has been raised to £21,000, some commentators believe the increase in contributions may well lead some disadvantaged students to question the benefit of a university education."