Another 20 institutions are likely to follow suit the following year leaving a university system split in two, according to Professor Gareth Roberts, vice-chancellor of Sheffield University.
Birmingham, Huddersfield and the London School of Economics have already discussed plans to charge students, and it is now believed that others will break ranks before Sir Ron Dearing's review of higher education reports next summer.
Universities are facing cuts of 30 per cent in funding for buildings and equipment in the current financial year and 50 per cent in the next three years. Professor Roberts said predictions suggested this year's budget settlement would bring no relief. The CVCP, meeting in Sheffield, discussed a plan which could mean students repaying pounds 20,000 after a three- year course, but later it drew back from committing itself.
Professor Roberts told the gathering that a national tuition fee charge should be a last resort, but later he argued that it looked inevitable in the long term. In the interim, institutions would be forced to make their own arrangements, he said. Those that had discussed the matter had consistently come up with an entrance fee of around pounds 1,000.
Professor Roberts said the old "binary line" which divided universities and polytechnics might reopen if the first institutions to charge top- up fees were able to implement their plans successfully.
"It's the last thing the CVCP wants, and I suspect it's the last thing students want, but I think it's inevitable that that's the way we are drifting unless there is some amelioration of the cuts announced in the budget. All the predictions are that the budget statement is going to be a lousy one. We are going to have some tough speaking to do after that," he said.
Academic staff were likely to be offered a pay rise of just 1.5 per cent this year, and 2,000 staff job losses had already been announced, he said. Vice- chancellors and the National Union of Students were working together to draw up figures on the size of the funding shortfall, he added. Universities which did not want to charge top-up fees might have to cut student numbers.
Douglas Trainer, president of the NUS, said student unions would fight plans for fee charges wherever they arose.
Vice-chancellors' salaries would be highlighted and local publicity campaigns would warn potential students of the bills they would face. In addition, the proposals might be open to legal challenge. Students who had already accepted places could argue that their universities were in breach of contract.