The British government ministers hope that the large tuition-fee waiver for poor students proposed by the University of Cambridge will pile pressure on the rest of the higher education sector as institutions approach D-Day for deciding charges for 2012-3.
Under the plans -- revealed first  by Times Higher Education -- the university would charge the maximum £9,000 fee (more than $14,400) but offer a £3,000-a-year “waiver” (more than $4,800) for students from households earning less than £25,000 a year (just over $40,000).
But Cambridge has been accused of playing into the government’s hands with the proposals, which also recommend cutting aid packages by more than half – a move that would leave students with less money in their pockets and the Treasury with more.
Other university vice-chancellors may carp that Cambridge has an unfair advantage, given that it has a relatively low intake of poor students compared with other institutions. David Willetts, the universities and science minister, is known to be watching developments at the universities of Cambridge and Oxford closely because of the ramifications that decisions at the ancient institutions with their democratic governance structures could have for fees set elsewhere.
Oxford’s congregation – the "dons’ parliament" – this week held a debate to discuss the government’s reforms. Much anger was directed towards any attempt to lower admissions standards as a way to allow more state school children to attend.
But there was also deep unease about the hike in fees, although most academics believe the university will have no choice but to charge £9,000 given the cuts in funding and the need to maintain its reputation.
Academics at both Oxford, whose council will set fees on March 14, and Cambridge, where proposals will be finalised next week, can challenge any decision taken about fees, but it is uncertain whether enough scholars will come forward to do so.
Revelations about Cambridge’s proposals came in a draft report of the institution’s working group on fees, aid and widening participation.
The document says Cambridge should charge the maximum level permitted, partly because "it is expected that most, if not all, of our peers will charge the maximum fee" and that charging less would be "fiscally irresponsible."
As well as a £3,000 fee waiver, those from families earning up to £42,000 a year would also be entitled to partial support that would be calculated according to income. The working group also proposes that the target for the percentage of Cambridge students coming from state schools should rise from 58 percent to between 61 and 63 percent.
Students were said to be “furious” about the waiver plan, which would cut the present maximum aid package of £3,400 – therefore removing cash-in-hand support while saving the government money by allowing it to lend less in subsidised loans to undergraduates.
Charlotte Binstead, president of the students’ union at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, said: “All the university has succeeded in doing is playing the game David Willetts asked of it: namely, shifting the ‘bursaries’ so that they benefited the Treasury’s borrowing figures instead of poor students’ bank balances.”
At Oxford there is also disquiet about such an approach. Susan Cooper, professor of physics and a member of the governing council, was expected to tell the congregation that a fee discount was "an inefficient use of our funds as it just subtracts from government subsidy."
Access agreement requirements – which universities will need in order to charge more than £6,000 – will become clearer after the government’s final letter of guidance to the Office for Fair Access is published this week.
Reports have suggested that Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, will tell vice-chancellors to use more “differential offers” to help state school students reach university.
It has also been claimed that the Liberal Democrat deputy leader, Simon Hughes, who is advising the coalition on access, had recommended that about 30 research-led universities should be the only ones to charge more than £6,000.