University vice-chancellors yesterday refused to back down from their threat to impose a pounds 300 entrance levy on students from September next year.
A meeting in London of the 104 vice-chancellors agreed to ask all university governing bodies to consider the levy in the fight against spending cuts.
Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education, has invited the vice-chancellors to talks next Tuesday in an attempt to defuse the crisis.
The Government is considering a major independent inquiry into university funding, as well as publication of a consultative paper.
Vice-chancellors say they want evidence of the Government's willingness to make changes in the way higher education is funded before they will lift their threat. Some of the most prestigious universities may go further and introduce top-up fees, which could be as high as pounds 1,000.
Vice-chancellors want a scheme under which graduates would take out loans for both living costs and teaching which would be repaid after they left university. At present, the taxpayer funds tuition fees, and loans are available only for maintenance.
Professor Martin Harris, Vice-Chancellor of Manchester University, said: "If no appropriate funding arrangement is put in place, a substantial number of universities will be driven to go to income sources derived from students." David Melville, Vice-Chancellor of Middlesex University, said: "Unless there is some kind of movement I shall be recommending a levy."
A spokeswoman for the Department for Education said: "The taxpayer is currently paying more than pounds 7bn a year to support higher education. The Government does not accept the reasons given for the committee of vice-chancellors' campaign."
John Akker, general secretary of the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education, said: "I would urge institutions not to adopt 'go it alone' policies such as top-up fees. Decent funding is a government responsibility."
Tony Blair is shortly expected to commit the Labour Party to a revamped student loan system, under which graduates would have to contribute to the cost of their higher education if they earned a good income in later life.
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