Tony Higgins, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, will this week urge school-leavers to enrol in higher education this autumn to avoid the possibility of paying fees in 1997.
His warning is the clearest indication yet that free university tuition is likely to end next year.
It comes ahead of a report, also due to be published this week, which reveals that almost four-fifths of science, medicine and engineering departments in UK universities are unable to perform critical experiments because of lack of funding.
Dr Higgins, who this week publishes the official guide to courses starting in autumn 1997, said students who want to delay taking up places should think again.
He said: "We are saying: if you have a place this year you should take it, otherwise you might be caught out by a fee next year. Our recommendation is, don't waste a year improving grades."
Those who fall short of the A-level grades needed to get their preferred place are urged to go for an alternative course. Each year around 40,000 students re-sit to try and improve grades. Thousands more take a year out to travel or get work experience.
At present the Government pays tuition fees on the student's behalf but universities say these are not high enough. They want extra money - "top- up" fees - from the students' own pockets.
Earlier this year the vice chancellors discussed the possibility of levying a one-off pounds 300 registration fee on all their new students, with some vice chancellors calling for fees of up to pounds 3,000. Ministers thought they had headed off this possibility in February when they set up an inquiry into higher education under Sir Ron Dearing.
But Dr Higgins's warning suggests that universities are too desperate for cash to wait for Sir Ron. No university is likely to charge additional fees to students this autumn but many are already discussing plans for next year.
Students already receive loans towards their maintenance - as well as means-tested grants of diminishing value - and further loans are likely to be available to pay fees.
But Britain is moving inexorably towards an American-style system in which the burden of paying for higher education falls mainly on students themselves and their families.
The draft report on science facilities, compiled for the Higher Education Funding Council for England (and its counterparts in Wales and Scotland), reveals a dismal picture. It says that 79 per cent of science, engineering and medicine departments in UK universities "reported important areas of current research in which investigators are unable to perform critical experiments due to lack of equipment funding".
The draft of the report - the first of its kind for nearly a decade - chronicles the concerns of British industry. It says: "Multinational companies pointed out that they were already relocating their collaborations with universities outside the UK as a direct consequence of decay in the academic infrastructure."
The draft report concludes: "UK science has scarcely improved its position with respect to research equipment in the past decade. Academia and industry are united in the message that the position will become substantially worse without major investment."
The report, compiled by academics at Manchester University, says that UK universities performed poorly compared with other countries, and are likely to fall further behind their overseas competitors in the future. The report says that 60 per cent of research equipment stock has a remaining useful life of five years or less. The estimated minimum sum needed to update it over the next five years is pounds 395m - a 34 per cent rise on equivalent spending in the past five years.
The report, and the threat of universities levying fees, place more pressure on Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education and Employment, to win a generous settlement from the Treasury for next year.
Government grants, channelled to the universities through funding councils, can supplement income from fees. But the Treasury, which needs to find money to fund pre-election tax cuts, has already indicated that this will be a tough public spending round. In the current year, capital spending cuts of 31 per cent have been imposed on English universities.Reuse content