The two elite institutions, whose wealth and fundraising power far outstrip those of any other UK university, have put disclaimers warning of the possibility of top-up fees in their new prospectuses, going to press this month.
Durham and Nottingham universities and the London School of Economics are the only other top-rank institutions to do the same, despite widespread predictions that the "old" universities would form a united front and include the warnings.
Instead, the majority of universities, including Manchester, Birmingham, Exeter and University College London, have opted to resist imposing even the threat of fees at least until 1999, a survey by The Independent revealed.
All five including the pro-spectus warnings insist the disclaimers do not mean they plan to impose fees, but say they wish to cover themselves legally in case they are forced to do so by funding pressures.
However, the move will be widely seen as abandoning the principle of free higher education. It is bound to influence the thinking of Sir Ron Dearing's inquiry into the future of higher education, due to report in the summer, which is looking at how the system should be paid for and structured.
The Higher Education Funding Council for England gave grants of pounds 3.1bn to the 136 universities and higher education colleges for the present financial year, compared with pounds 3.5 bn in 1995.
Threats to levy top-up fees this autumn were staved off last November by a better than expected Budget settlement for higher education.
But in December, the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals advised its members to include fees warnings in their prospectuses for potential students applying for 1998 and issued model disclaimers. It said the clauses would offer institutions protection against possible legal action from students if they imposed charges without notice.
At the moment, British undergraduates receive free tuition, paid for by the Govern- ment through local education authorities.
Top-up fees, if introduced, would also supplement government funding. Because no university has yet decided to bring them in, no figures are available, but vice-chancellors talked last year of sums of up to pounds 1,000 a year.
The universities publishing fees warnings say they are countenancing charging students only in order to preserve the quality of teaching. A spokeswoman for Oxford University said: "The university is not actively considering fees at the moment and would be very reluctant to do so unless it felt it had absolutely no other option."
Cambridge makes clear that with the Dearing inquiry not concluded, uncertainties remain. The new Durham University prospectus says students will be required to pay the balance for any course charges not met by their LEA.
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