Teachers fear that ministers' proposals to allow universities to charge more will dissuade sixth-formers from leaving home.
Many students will no longer have three carefree years of study away from home, if the reforms in this week's higher education White Paper are introduced.
The Government's proposed changes in student support are meant to turn 18-year-olds into independent adults, paying for their own, informed choice of course. But many may react to higher costs by opting to study from home, teachers and sixth-formers predicted this week (see right).
The White Paper sets out a 10-year programme to save universities from drift and decline by boosting their income and raising their teaching standards. It includes proposals not only to make students pay more but also to get more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds into the system.
After Cabinet wrangling that went on until the 11th hour, the proposals finally presented to Parliament on Wednesday by Education Secretary Charles Clarke bear all the signs of a compromise.
The existing, flat-rate pound;1,100 tuition fee is to be scrapped.
Instead, universities will be able to charge annual fees of up to pound;3,000 for some or all of their courses. The Government will give universities sums equivalent to the fees and students will then repay through the tax system after they graduate.
The new funding regime will be introduced in 2006 but maintenance grants of up to pound;1,000 for the poorest third of students will be introduced in 2004.
Elite universities, such as Oxford, Cambridge, London Imperial, Warwick and Nottingham, are likely to charge higher fees while others may charge nothing.
Higher fees, as well as accommodation and living costs, are likely to increase the maximum debt of a student who receives no help from parents or the Government from the current pound;15,000 to pound;21,000.
Chancellor Gordon Brown opposed differential fees and loans because they would deter students from poor backgrounds. He preferred a general graduate income tax. But the Prime Minister intervened to back Mr Clarke.
Mr Brown has been partially mollified by the plan to introduce an access "regulator", who will ensure that universities are taking steps to attract students from disadvantaged homes, and remove the power to set higher fees if they are not.
The proposal for an access watchdog was dubbed "disgraceful" and "social engineering of the worst kind" by Damian Green, education spokesman for the Conservative party.
Independent schools said it was "potentially very threatening to universities' independence." But Peter Lampl of the Sutton Trust said the appointment of an "access tsar", if handled sensitively, could be "a very positive step towards broadening access."
A MORI poll of nearly 1,100 students, published on Tuesday, found one in three would not have chosen a university if it had charged "top-up" fees.
Ministers also propose to concentrate research funding in the elite universities and, for the first time, to start rewarding universities that teach well, based partly on student surveys.
Reaction to the White Paper has been mixed. University vice-chancellors welcomed the extra funds for higher education but queried the value of an access regulator. And Liberal Democrat Phil Willis said top-up fees were a "sell-out".
But Ruth Lea of the Institute of Directors said universities were very different and the better ones should be free to charge more.
Scottish universities are unlikely to introduce differential fees and may therefore have to impose quotas to prevent being flooded by applicants from south of the border, it emerged this week.
The Government is to hold talks with the Welsh Assembly over its request to be given powers over student funding. Welsh education minister Jane Davidson is opposed to differential fees.
* A PAY boost for university lecturers should make it easier for teacher training departments to recruit good school staff to train the teachers of tomorrow.
But plans to increase student tuition fees could further damage the appeal of undergraduate routes into teaching, the Universities Council for the Education of Teachers warned. "There is already resentment because postgraduate students get all the incentives, including pound;6,000 training bursaries," said Mary Russell, the council's secretary.
The current scheme allowing newly qualified teachers in shortage secondary subjects to claim back their student loan debt continues, but there are no plans to expand it to other subjects or public sector workers.
Leader, 28 FE Focus, 37
TIMETABLE OF CHANGES
2003-4 Higher Education Bill through Parliament.
2004 Re-introduction of maintenance grants of up to pound;1,000 a year for students from low-income families.
2005 Threshold at which graduates start repaying fee contribution and maintenance loans raised from pound;10,000 to pound;15,000.
2006 Minimum tuition fee scrapped and Graduate Contribution Scheme introduced, with differential fees repaid after graduation. Government continues to pay up to first pound;1,100 of fees for poor students.
HIGHLIGHTS OF THE WHITE PAPER
* Spending on higher education to rise from pound;7.5 billion in 20023 to almost pound;10bn in 20056.
* Target of 50 per cent of young people into higher education by 2010 mostly in two-year, work-focused foundation degrees.
* New system of student support, with pound;1,000 grants for poorest third of students, scrapping of minimum fee and end of up-front tuition fees.
* Universities to draw up access agreements, including new admissions procedures to meet targets for increasing intake of students from a working-class background.
* Universities with approved access agreements to be free to charge fees of up to pound;3,000, to be repaid by students after graduation through tax system.
* New guide to universities for students will include information on teaching standards.
* More funds and training to promote higher teaching standards in universities.
* Spending on research to be boosted by pound;1.25bn.