Students at top universities could face tuition fees of over £7,000 per year by 2013 under plans being developed by both Labour and the Conservatives, the Times reported yesterday.

Students and prospective students across the country are reacting in dismay at the proposal, with online forums such as The Student Room flooded with posts on the subject. 

Both parties are currently considering an overhaul of the system under which top universities would be allowed to lift fees above the current legal limit of £3,225. University vice-chancellors have indicated that a £7,000 maximum fee is a reasonable “consensus” figure; striking the delicate balance between rescuing university finances and being affordable.

The proposal was handed by the former Universities secretary, John Denham, to Lord Mandelson, the new Business, Innovation and Skills secretary. Denham’s plan also calls for a wholesale restructuring of higher education.

Some post-1992 universities and further education colleges could offer free, government-funded “walk to study” degrees, often in vocational subjects, to local students living at home, whilst top institutions like Oxford would be allowed to charge much higher fees than they do at present, with students essentially pre-paying for future earning potential.

The idea was not costed out in the proposal, but it has been estimated that the eventual annual fee at elite institutions could be up to £15,000, nearly five times the current legal maximum. This would leave students a staggering £60,000 in debt at the end of a three year course, compared to the current NUS estimate of £20,000.

Earlier this year, Sally Hunt, general secretary of The University and Colleges Union (UCU) said, “increasing fees or the other financial barriers that so many students and parents come up against when considering university is certainly not the way to deliver a world-class university system.”

In contrast, Lord Mandelson said today in his first speech on higher education since it became part of his remit as Business Secretary that Britain needed to “face up” to paying for excellence in higher education. “Bluntly put, excellence is not cheap,” he commented.

Jonny Medland, OUSU’s Vice-President for Access and Academic Affairs, emphasised the need to look for other solutions to the funding problem. “It’s crucial that the funding review examines all possible options without assuming the desirability of increasing the cap on tuition fees. The students of Oxford have voted to support a graduate tax as it provides a fairer way of ensuring that we enjoy world class universities which are accessible to all students.”

Initiatives such as Target Schools have been working hard to demystify Oxford’s reputation as a financially unattainable institution – yet the negative publicity generated by the government’s plans is bound to put off prospective applicants from less well-off backgrounds.

Medland stressed that any raise in fees will need to be accompanied by increasing bursaries. He commented, “Doubling fees risks deterring students from applying to university unless it is matched by a significant expansion in the number of bursaries. Government and universities would need to redouble their efforts to persuade applicants that they were not being priced out of higher education.”