Plans for far-reaching reforms in higher education will be published within days, fuelling fierce speculation that students will soon have to repay university fees, it emerged last night.
Ministers have bowed to pressure from vice-chancellors who say deep cuts to university budgets are making it impossible for them to deliver high- quality degrees.
At an emergency meeting on the crisis yesterday the Secretary of State for Education, Gillian Shephard, said she hoped to produce her proposals for reform before the end of next week. The proposals will form the basis of the most wide-ranging review of British universities, their structure and funding, since the 1960s.
Charges for university courses are bound to be among the range of options to be put forward by ministers. Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats are also thinking of ending the present system under which local authorities must pay for students' courses.
The universities have threatened to impose a pounds 300 levy on new students and to boycott teaching-quality inspections in the face of pounds 200m cuts over the next year.
The restrictions imposed by the Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, would mean 50-per-cent cuts in building and equipment budgets over the next three years.
Last night Diana Warwick, chief executive of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, said universities would be deeply disappointed if Mrs Shephard's new review did not unveil any firm proposals. The committee had asked Mrs Shephard to complete her review before its annual meeting in September and had called for firm plans before the general election, she said. Its members, who include the heads of more than 100 universities, hope to be able to discuss the proposals when they meet again next Friday.
"If all it does is to reopen the whole range of issues which are then kicked into the long grass that just is not good enough," she said.
The vice-chancellors have called for a university funding system like the one which already exists in Australia, under which graduates begin repaying a portion of their fees once they are earning more than the national average wage.
Mrs Shephard launched a review of higher education more than a year ago but Downing Street was not satisfied with its results and the publication of the review's findings has been delayed.
Last night, officials at the Department for Education and Employment refused to speculate on what the announcement might contain. A statement from the department said Mrs Shephard had invited the universities to provide more evidence on the impact of the cuts and to set up a discussion group on initiatives to increase private-funding sources.
There has been a growing political consensus that students should be charged fees. The percentage of 18-year-olds going to university has grown in the past decade from one in five to almost one in three, and funding has not kept pace.Reuse content