A last-minute dash by universities to charge the maximum £9,000 annual fee for next year has prompted expectations that more than 30,000 student places will be axed.
Two-thirds of English universities have now opted for the maximum charge for all courses – which ministers previously claimed would be only the "exception".
Ministers said they would have to impose cuts in student numbers if the average fee is more than £7,500 because they will not be able to afford the loans. It is likely to be more than £8,500 and the Treasury will have to foot all the extra cost up front.
Analysis by the House of Commons Library suggests this would mean a £450m shortfall by 2014-15, leading to the Coalition axing 33,000 university places.
Six universities – Bradford, Bristol, Hull, Lincoln, Edge Hill University and Harper Adams, a specialist agricultural college – all said yesterday they planned to charge the maximum.
The University of Salford and Manchester Metropolitan University said they would be looking to charge from £8,000 up to the maximum £9,000. University of Worcester students will have to pay £8,100 and those going to Leeds Trinity, £8,000.
Yesterday's rush to declare fees came about because the deadline for applying to the universities watchdog, the Office for Fair Access, for permission to charge more than £6,000 expired at midnight.
Universities had to get their bids in by then if they wanted to receive the go-ahead for the new charges by July – when students for autumn 2012 will be applying in droves.
So far, of about 70 universities that have indicated their proposed fees for next year, not one has said it intends to go for the £6,000 "floor" figure – which would mean they did not have to sign an access agreement with Offa promising to do all in their power to recruit disadvantaged students.
That is a major embarrassment for the Coalition Government as Business Secretary Vince Cable and Universities minister David Willetts have insisted charges of more than £6,000 a year should be the exception rather than the norm.
"This policy is becoming a runaway horse," said Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union. "Without strong intervention soon it could have disastrous effects for our higher education system."
Of those that declared yesterday, Bristol University said it would offer a reduced fee of £3,500 a year for students whose parental income was less than £15,000. That would mean students in that category paying no more than they do at present.
Professor Calie Pistorius, vice chancellor of Hull University, said: "The university believes the headline fee of £9,000 is necessary to ensure our commitment to quality teaching.
"The figure reflects the value of a degree from the University of Hull."
Bournemouth University is proposing a range of fees from £6,000 to £9,000 – the £6,000 charge for foundation degrees while the maximum will be levied for its specialist courses such as tourism and journalism.
Offa does not have the power to refuse universities permission to charge the maximum fee so long as they come up with plans to encourage disadvantaged students to apply.
"If fees come in at the average we're currently seeing, the cost of loans could be up to half a billion pounds more annually," said the Labour leader Ed Miliband. "Filling a hole of up to half a billion pounds by cutting university places could mean over 30,000 fewer young people going to university."
Aaron Porter, president of the National Union of Students, called for the watchdog to be given more powers to do its job: "When the Government forced these ill-considered plans through Parliament, they claimed that fees above £6,000 would be the exception rather than the rule but that was quite clearly a pipe dream."
Universities said they were losing up to 80 per cent of their funding for teaching as part of the government cuts – which was why they were opting for high fees.
'Would I pay £9,000?'
Jack Dobson-Smith, 19, from Romford, Essex, is a second-year journalism student at the University of Lincoln
"I wouldn't consider university if I was applying now. If I was paying £9,000 I would have wanted one further up the league tables. Most people I know wouldn't have considered getting into that much debt to get an education. I've had such an enjoyable two years and I'd hate to think people will miss out on that."
Aiden Mersh, 22, from east London, graduated in politics at Hull in 2010, he is now president of the Students Union
"I don't think I would have taken a risk on Hull University if I had had to pay £9,000. Hull was actually the university I got into through clearing; I didn't get into my first choice which was Newcastle. I wouldn't have wanted to pay £9,000 to go to my second choice. I would have said to myself: 'Do I really want to go?'"
Avi Heinemann, 23, from Wanstead, east London, is in his second year studying social anthropology at the University of Kent
"I don't think I would have had much of a choice of other universities to be honest, but I wouldn't have been able to pay £9,000."
Becky Davies, 20, from Purley, near Gatwick, is in her third year studying history of art at the University of Manchester
"If I didn't have support from my parents, I would have found the idea of taking on that debt very scary. I know that my parents would have supported me even if I had to pay the £9000 fees, so I would be able to make a decision based on the university I wanted to go to and the course I wanted to do. It's worth paying for if it's a decent university which will mean you get a better job, but I think it's ridiculous to suddenly jump from £3,000 to £9,000, it should have been done more gradually."
So who's charging what?
Birkbeck University (from £6,000)
City University London
Coventry University (from £4,600)
Harper Adams College
Imperial College London
Liverpool Hope University
Liverpool John Moores University
London Met University (from £4,500)
Oxford Brookes University
Queen Mary, University of London
Royal Agricultural College
University College London
University College Falmouth
University of Central Lancashire
University of East London
Hertfordshire University (up to) £8,500
Kingston University £8,500 (for most courses)
Leeds Metropolitan University £8,500
London South Bank University £8,390
Portsmouth University £8,500
St Mary's University College, Twickenham £8,000
Sheffield Hallam £8,500
University Campus Suffolk £7,500-£8,000
York St John £8,500
Bishop Grosseteste University College Lincoln £7,500
Derby University £6,995-£7,995
Southampton Solent University £7,800Reuse content