A complete switch from student grants to loans is the only way to pay for an expanded and properly funded system of higher education, according to the vice-chancellors' submission to the Dearing Review.
If the ending of maintenance grants does not release enough public money to meet the shortfall in government funding, then loans could be extended to cover tuition costs, they suggest.
They set their faces against limiting students to two years of publicly funded higher education, to be topped up privately. Three- to five-year undergraduate courses should remain the norm for 18-year-old entrants, they say, although accelerated two-year courses might suit mature students.
The vice-chancellors submit that expanding the education system is essential to both economic prosperity and social cohesion. Their research suggests that numbers of full-time undergraduates could rise by a quarter over the next seven years if current constraints were lifted. But they recognise that for the state to bear too large a part of the cost of each full-time student is not only unfair to those students who get no help from public funds but also damaging to universities.
Noting that spending per student has fallen by 28 per cent over the past six years, they remark: "It is quite clear from recent history that the temptation for government to reduce the amount of money it invests in each student is irresistible as numbers rise. This trend is incompatible with a higher education system of high quality."
A loans scheme for all students, including part-timers, would free them from dependence on their parents and give them greater responsibility for their educational choices, according to the vice-chancellors. And it would release government funds which could then be reinvested in higher education - with a monitoring system to make sure the money was not diverted elsewhere.
The vice-chancellors stress that the universities must do more to redress the social class imbalance in their intakes. More than 60 per cent of home entrants to full-time undergraduate courses are from social classes I and II, they point out, although these classes represent less than 40 per cent of the economically active population.
Their evidence proposes a new education and training framework for all post-16 provision, with a national credit accumulation and transfer scheme to enable students to move freely between further and higher education.
"Education should no longer be seen as a linear system, only allowing progress in one direction," they say. "There should be lateral movement, too. Not a ladder, but a ship's rigging."
Our Universities Our Future, the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals's evidence to the National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education, is available on the World Wide Web via - http:www.cvcp.ac. uk dearing. Printed copies of Part 1 (vision statement and main recommendations) are available free from the reception at the CVCP (tel: 0171 387 9231). Orders for the full evidence (Parts 1-4) should be made in writing, with a cheque for Pounds 25 made payable to the CVCP, and sent to: CVCP Publications, 29 Tavistock Square, London WC1H 9EZ.