In her first interview since taking office as Minister for Lifelong Learning, Baroness Blackstone indicated that the Government would not rule out the option, which would hammer the final nail in the coffin of free higher education in Britain.
If adopted, the move would result in an outcry, particularly among middle-class parents. The last time the introduction of tuition fees was attempted, by Sir Keith Joseph a decade ago, the scale of parental opposition forced Margaret Thatcher to reverse the policy after letters warning of means-tested grants had gone out to parents.
While insisting ministers were not persuaded of the case for charging for teaching, Baroness Blackstone - Master of Birkbeck College, London, until taking office after the election - said the Government might find it "necessary to consider an element [of fees] for tuition", depending on the funding position for higher education. However, she reiterated her firm opposition to top-up fees - extra costs levied by individual universities and paid up-front by students. Her statement provides the first indication of how the new government plans to approach the highly controversial question of reforming university funding, and represents a change to existing Labour policy.
In the past, the party has opposed any threat to free higher education for full-time first-degree undergraduates, though it is committed to extending their contribution to living costs through loans.
The issue remained largely undebated during the election campaign by tacit all-party agreement as all sides awaited the outcome of a fundamental review of higher education by a committee led by Sir Ron Dearing. Sir Ron, who met David Blunkett, Secretary of State for Education and Employment, last night to report on the review's progress, is certain to take ministers' willingness to countenance fees into account in drawing up his final report, due in July.
Vice-chancellors and principals have already called for an element of student contributions towards teaching costs. At present, courses for Britain's 1 million undergraduates cost between pounds 750 a year for classroom- based courses and pounds 2,800 annually for the clinical elements of medical degrees. Six universities have this year placed warnings in their prospectuses that they may levy top-up fees for courses starting in September 1998.
The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals (CVCP) last night welcomed news that the Government was "considering radical solutions to the challenges facing the higher education sector." The committee's chief executive, Diana Warwick, said: "There is a great opportunity now for the government to take bold action. CVCP believes the realistic solution is a new and fair loans system covering maintenance and a contribution to tuition. Including the contribution to tuition fees is essential if the education of our students is to be properly resourced into the 21st century."
Many students, including those studying part-time or on postgraduate courses, missed out under the current system because they received no public support for either maintenance costs or tuition fees, she added.
However, the National Union of Students reiterated its opposition to tuition fees, stating its view that, until the Dearing committee's report, there remained "everything to play for".
An early hint that Labour might drop its opposition to fees came in February this year, when Mr Blunkett said in an interview with the Financial Times that he was "prepared to listen" to suggestions of loans for tuition. In its evidence to the Dearing inquiry, the party made clear that in government it would want to resume the expansion of higher education - currently capped at a level allowing around one in three young people to attend university - and reform the funding system to make growth possible.
Tessa Blackstone profile,