Martina Milburn, the latest chair of the Social Mobility Commission, said she did not believe scrapping the much-criticised course fees was an effective way of widening access to higher education.
Recent reports have suggested a government-commissioned review of university education in England could recommend a reduction of maximum fees from £9,250 to £6,500.
But Ms Milburn suggested reducing or removing fees altogether could prove damaging. “Cutting fees will certainly help a certain sector. Whether it helps the right young people, I’m not convinced,” she told The Observer.
“There’s also evidence that if you remove tuition fees altogether, there would be a certain number of young people from particular backgrounds who wouldn’t be able to go to university at all – but if you restore something like the education maintenance allowance or a version of it, I think you would widen participation. That’s a personal view.”
The social mobility tsar suggested returning to a system of targeted maintenance grants would be a better way of helping students from low-income families.
“This is something I think we would definitely look at in the future – on whether you restore something like the maintenance grants, which seems to me much more important than cutting fees,” said Ms Milburn.
Philip Augar is leading a government review of post-18 education and is set to report early next year. The maximum amount universities would be allowed to charge could be cut by almost £3,000 a year, according to reports last month.
But one suggestion is that leading institutions could be allowed to raise fees for some subjects – such as science and medicine – to up to £13,500 a year.
A cap on tuition fees in England was controversially raised by the government following the Browne Review in 2010, with critics claiming it has made higher education unaffordable to many students.
Less than half of universities’ tuition fee income is spent on teaching, according to research released by the Higher Education Policy Institute last month.
Much of the rest of the income goes on other academic uses, such as maintaining teaching buildings, IT and library facilities.
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