Wealthy parents could be allowed to 'buy' their children places at top universities by paying higher fees under plans being put together by the government.
Extra places would be provided at the leading universities and could be filled by undergraduates rich enough, or whose parents were wealthy enough, to pay fees up front.
The idea, which is expected to be contained in a white paper, is part of a package of suggestions designed to create extra places at universities without increasing costs to the taxpayer.
David Willetts, the Universities Minister, is is keen for businesses and even charities to sponsor more undergraduates and by enabling them to be counted as extra places - or "off-quota" places - they would allow more students to attend their first choice university. At present when businesses sponsor students they are counted as part of a university's normal quota of places.
However, he wants the forthcoming White Paper on universities to consider a whole range of options and as such he is also willing to consider allowing the wealthy to pay enhanced fees of at least £12,000 per year and in some cases more than £28,000.
He also hopes that the scheme will improve social mobility because it should mean the total number of students winning places at the most popular universities was higher.
"There are various important issues that need to be addressed around off-quota places, but I start from the view that an increase in the total number of higher education places could aid social mobility," he told The Guardian. "We are inviting ideas on the whole concept and we will listen very carefully to all the responses we receive.
"There would need to be arrangements to make sure any such system was fair and worked in the interests of students as well as institutions. But it is not clear what the benefit is of the current rules, which, for example, limit the ability of charities or social enterprises to sponsor students."
Students who were awarded the extra places would have to be either sponsored or wealthy because they would not be allowed to apply for givernment-funded loan schemes to pay their fees or living costs.
The scheme would be expected to appeal to the most popular universities which each year have to turn away thousands of young people, many of whom are qualified to win places. Among them is Oxford which has about 3,000 UK and EU undergraduates after 17,000 applied.