More than 600 Oxbridge academics are demanding a halt to implementing government proposals for tuition fees to rise to up to £9,000 a year.
They say universities are being forced to "fly blind" over plans to increase fees because a White Paper outlining how the new system will work is being delayed until later in the year. "It is because this detail has yet to be decided that universities are having to plan in the dark," said Professor Peter de Bola, of King's College, Cambridge, one of those behind the protest.
In a strongly worded open letter to Business Secretary Vince Cable and Universities minister David Willetts, the academics call for the establishment of a public commission of inquiry into the plans.
The authors argue: "We note with dismay and alarm that universities are being forced to take major decisions, with unknown consequences, to a breakneck timetable.
"We are being asked to 'fly blind' over matters of the utmost importance in respect to our ability to continue to deliver world-class education and research."
Both Oxford and Cambridge have indicated they would like to raise fees to the maximum £9,000 a year from September 2012. They must now seek an agreement with the Office for Fair Access, the watchdog set up to ensure fair university admissions, to take measures to widen participation by students from disadvantaged areas. Both are proposing substantial bursaries for less well-off students to encourage participation. Both universities are set to approve their proposals for raising fees next week.
The academics argue the Government's plans to slash spending on university teaching by up to 80 per cent and fund it from income from fees will introduce a model whereby "the money follows the student".
They say it will lead to "decimating the funding for teaching in some institutions without any coherent and publicly announced policy in regard to which of these institutions and courses you believe should be left to fail".
"We... ask you to halt the current plans for implementing such enormously risky legislation in such undue haste and until such time as the possible outcomes and consequences of these proposed changes have been coherently and rigorously examined."
They add: "We believe that a public commission of inquiry, properly and fully consultative, charged with the responsibility of examining these issues, is urgently required and ask you to set in motion such an inquiry."
The letter coincides with a visit being made to Cambridge by Mr Willetts tomorrow in which he is expected to mount a strong defence of the Government's proposals.
Ministers have argued that universities should only opt for the maximum £9,000 fee in "exceptional circumstances" – although they are bracing for most of the leading universities demanding the maximum fee.
Last week, Mr Willetts delivered a warning to institutions not to rush to set the maximum fee when charges rise. He told vice-chancellors that they would face further cuts in spending if too many opted for the highest figure. He also warned they would face increased competition from private-sector providers of degree courses – effectively undercutting them if they plumped for the highest fee option.