The Tories signalled yesterday that they may be willing to scrap their commitment to abolish tuition fees in a major policy rethink after a crucial vote next month.
Tim Yeo, the Conservatives' education spokesman, refused to rule out a review of his party's flagship policy and said he had held talks in recent weeks with vice-chancellors of several leading universities who favour increasing fees.
Mr Yeo said yesterday he was "completely open minded" about how a future Conservative government would fund universities. He added that, although the Tories will oppose a government Bill next month to introduce variable top-up fees of up to £3,000, after the Commons vote the "landscape" would change on the issue.
His comments are likely to be seized on by Labour and the Liberal Democrats as a sign that the Tories are uncertain about how to fund universities. The former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith came up with the policy of scrapping tuition fees and his party has promoted it enthusiastically to students. But under the new regime led by Michael Howard there are understood to be concerns that the funding crisis can only be met by charging students.
Mr Yeo indicated that his party would be willing to re-assess its policy after the next election in an interview on BBC Radio 4's World at One. "I am in discussions with the universities. I believe these are major national assets and they need to be cherished and developed and I am completely open-minded about how best that can be done," he said.
Tony Blair could lose the vote next month. More than 150 Labour back benchers have signed a motion opposing the Bill and with the Tories and the Lib Dems they could defeat the Government for the first time since it came to power.