Students may have to pay £15,000 a year to go to top universities if a radical plan to overhaul the fees system is accepted by ministers.
An inquiry into student finance headed by Lord Browne, the former boss of BP, is set to recommend doubling the level of the current cap on fees of £3,290 a year to £7,000 when it reports next week. It is also expected to allow some of the country's most selective universities to charge more if they guarantee bursaries will cover the extra cost for disadvantaged students.
It had been feared the increased fees, to be introduced in 2012, would result in fees of £10,000. But a report by the Sutton Trust, which aims to encourage more students from poorer backgrounds to apply to Britain's top-ranked universities, suggests this will eventually lead to fees of £15,000 a year at top institutions. At present, only international students from outside the EU have to pay anywhere approaching full-cost fees. Sir Richard Sykes, the former rector at Imperial College, which charges foreign students £21,140 a year for maths and computer science, has called for fees of £20,000 a year to be charged to home-based students.
The prospect of higher fees provoked an outcry yesterday. Aaron Porter, the president of the National Union of Students, said: "Lord Browne's dream to embark on the road to a market in fees would be a nightmare for students and their families. The Government must reject an unpopular and regressive lifting of the fee cap. Top-up fees were tripled four years ago and the public will not tolerate a further hike. A great many politicians have pledged to oppose higher fees and we will hold them to their promise."
Sally Hunt, the general secretary of the University and College Union, said: "If the funding review simply lists ways to squeeze more money out of students and their families then it will have spectacularly failed [to fulfil] its remit. We are hearing no radical or progressive options."
However, Wendy Piatt, the director general of the Russell Group – which represents 20 of the country's leading research institutions including Oxford and Cambridge, said: "Many universities actually make a loss in recruiting home students, particularly for expensive science courses, because of underfunding from the Government – and the fact that we are not allowed to ask students to make a higher contribution to those costs.
"We simply cannot afford to provide the high quality education that our students need without asking them to make a larger financial contribution."