Five universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, are refusing to rule out top-up fees until ministers make clear how much cash will be made available next year to avert a growing crisis in funding.
Vice-chancellors' leaders made clear that universities would not budge until they had "seen the colour of the Government's money", and pledged to consider challenging any move to legislate against top-up fees.
Universities dug in their heels after it emerged the Government was taking legal advice on how to stop them charging extra for tuition. From next September students will, for the first time, be charged pounds 1,000 a year for tuition fees, repayable after graduation.
At present, universities are free to charge extra fees on top of that but none has so far said that it will do so. But six institutions - Oxford and Cambridge, Bristol, Durham, Nottingham and the London School of Economics - included warnings of possible top-up fees in prospectuses available this year to students applying for 1998 entry.
All said they had no desire to levy fees, but were prepared to do so if lack of funding would otherwise threaten quality.
The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals is preparing to use the fees threat as a weapon to wring maximum funds from the Government. This week's Times Educational Supplement quotes a leaked CVCP internal document as saying: "It is important to keep the threat of top-up fees on the table, given the lack of assurances that additional funding for higher education will be provided in the short-term"
Vice-chancellors are worried that money raised from the pounds 1,000-a-year fee will not be used to fund higher education but will go into the Treasury coffers. The Government has yet to make clear what will happen to the money.
Diana Warwick, CVCP chief executive, said last night: "It is quite clear that the universities that have already said they fear this is the only way forward feel they can't withdraw that until they see the colour of the Government's money." The CVCP would have to "give some thought" to challenging the Government over legislation banning top-up fees, she said.
Nottingham University is the only one of the six to have suggested it would lift the threat. Baroness Blackstone, the higher education minister, said yesterday: "The Government has made it clear that top-up fees will play no part in our proposals for funding higher education. In legislating for the new higher education arrangements, the Government will consider the need for powers to prevent top-up fees being charged."
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