The Universities Minister faced a torrent of criticism yesterday for suggesting that students could find themselves cut-price degrees at the last minute as institutions charging £9,000 a year would be bound to slash their prices.
In an interview with The Independent, David Willetts said universities would be allowed to cut fees or offer other incentives in the weeks before lectures begin to fill their courses through the clearing process. But yesterday he was criticised by higher education officials, who said students might hold off from accepting places in anticipation of a degree "fire-sale". They described it as a "harebrained idea" that should "be consigned to the dustbin of history".
David Green, vice-chancellor of the University of Worcester, said the proposition was tantamount to "nonsense". "For the Universities Minister to trail this as a serious proposition is harebrained and damaging. It will create confusion amongst potential applicants and society at large," he said.
"It would mean turning university education into a retail commodity and university education just isn't like that. You can't buy university education and then sell it on like you would a car or a piece of furniture. You have to earn a degree and then once you have that education, it stays with you for the rest of your life.
"The proposition is based on ignorance and I think it has been made because the Government has made such a mess of tuition fees already. They now want to put forward any ideas at all into the public space but they really need to stop doing this."
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said Mr Willetts' proposal was a "tacit admission from the minister that cost will be a key factor for many people when it comes to choosing where and what to study at university".
She added: "This is something the rest of us have always known, but it would be a real shame if further confusion was added to an already complicated process and talented students missed out on university because they were holding out for a cut-price degree through clearing." Emily Tapping, chair of the Aldwych Group, which represents the students' unions of the 20 Russell Group universities, said suggesting that fees could be cut at the last minute was "just not fair".
"If a student makes the grades and gets a place at university they will face the possibility of paying one amount, while someone who fails at the start and scrambles to get a place at the end, will somehow pay less," she said.
Mr Willetts' comments came in the same week that the Government launched a £1.5m communications campaign aiming to convince students to still apply to university despite increased fees.
Yesterday, he suggested that some universities were failing to provide students with enough lecture and tutorial time, adding that there was "frustration" among students over the amount of "educational input" they receive.
Speaking at the Higher Education Policy Institute's spring conference in central London, the minister highlighted research which showed that UK students have fewer contact hours per week than their counterparts in France or Germany.
The figures, from 2009, show that in the UK students have an average of 30 contact hours per week, compared to 42 hours in France and 36 in Germany. "You put together contact hours and times of private study, and you do appear to find that hours of study for students in the UK appear to be below the average in other European countries," Mr Willetts said.
He insisted that the evidence suggests that despite lower contact hours, UK students were more likely than their European counterparts to put in more effort than strictly required by their university.
"In the face of it, it does appear that some universities are not very demanding of their students," he said.