Students who start their university courses in two years' time will be the first to have to pay substantially more for the cost of their education once they graduate, the Universities minister, David Willetts, said yesterday.
In a speech to university vice-chancellors, he made it clear for the first time that there could be no avoiding higher contributions from graduates.
"What would not make sense would be to fail to increase the contribution from graduates with the result that we then jeopardised the student experience or ended up having to make big cuts in student numbers," he told the annual conference of Universities UK, the body which represents vice-chancellors. "That would be to let down our young people.
"So we start to see the road ahead. We do need efficiency savings – doing more for less. We do need to provide alternatives to university for those young people who aren't cut out for that route. And we can expect graduates to contribute more."
What is not clear yet is just how that higher contribution will be made – whether it will come from lifting the cap on top-up fees, levying higher taxes on graduates because of their increased earnings, or (most likely) a mixture of the two.
In a briefing yesterday, Mr Willetts made it clear that a "full-blown" tax on graduates – a graduate tax that they would pay for the rest of their lives – was "not what the Coalition is envisaging".
He said that it was "important that the way forward on student finance is progressive" – raising the likelihood that graduates who end up earning the most could end up paying a higher tax on their earnings.
What he did spell out was the timetable for introducing his university reforms – and it will be those who start their university courses in September 2012 who are likely to face the new financial regime – effectively hitting many of those starting A-level courses this month.
These youngsters would mostly complete their studies by July 2015 – the year in which all the cuts in spending being sought by the comprehensive spending review would have been brought into effect.
Mr Willetts told his audience: "Yes, cuts are coming. And – yes – sadly there will be pain."
However, he acknowledged that Conservative governments of the early 1990s had "cut back too much". "No one wishes to go through that again."
To survive, he called for an expansion in the number of private universities in the UK. To date, there are only two: Buckingham University and BPP.
He cited figures which showed that the number of senior university administrators had risen by 6 per cent in 2009, to 14,250 – while the number of professors fell by 4 per cent to 15,539.
He also warned of the danger of allowing youngsters to rely too heavily on going to university. "On A-level results day at Ucas, I listened to young people who had phoned in, fearful that their lives had been wrecked because they hadn't got a place at university. But they need to be confident that there are other options as well. We cannot have a society where university is the only route to a well-paid job and a career."
Some could well opt for apprenticeships or study online or at a later age.