Plans to make graduates repay more than Pounds 20,000 in degree costs could have a disastrous effect on numbers of young people going to university, it was claimed this week.
Anthony McClaran, deputy chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, renewed advice to young people not to take time off before taking up a place because they could find charges are introduced in the meantime.
University chiefs are considering proposals this week which would mean students being charged tuition fees for the first time.
The draft submission by the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals to the Dearing committee suggested full-time undergraduates should pay Pounds 1,200 a year for tuition starting in the academic year 200001, rising to Pounds 2,400 by 200506.
The current system of maintenance grants and short-term loans would be replaced by a long-term loan of Pounds 4,475 for each year of study. Together the loans would leave the average graduate with a debt of more than Pounds 20,625 after three years.
The vice-chancellors' proposals are aimed at making sure all universities introduce a uniform charging system.
This would avoid creating differences in quality between those universities able to demand the highest fees and those forced to accept less, which is what happens in the United States.
The CVCP stressed that the plans, being considered at its annual conference in Sheffield, were aimed at creating a fairer system and relieving pressure on parents, many of whom now have to top up their children's grants.
Numbers of students failing to complete courses have shot up in recent years with the latest figure standing at around 54,000. But the CVCP says many of these are mature and part-time students who do not qualify for grants or loans under the present system. The committee proposes that all students would be eligible for the new loans.
But the plan met an angry reaction from students who say other ways should be found to fund higher education. The National Union of Students said it was appalled that young people were to be forced to pay for the Government's neglect of higher education funding.
UCAS suggested earlier this year that students should not delay taking up university places to improve their grades because of the threat of fees being introduced.
This week Mr McClaran said the new loan proposals could affect numbers applying for higher education places unless the repayment system was effective.
He supported the CVCP's proposal to recoup the loans through the national insurance system over many years.
"Students are increasingly concerned about the impact of the cost of going to university and this is bound to add to those worries," he said.
"If there were a very sharp rise in the cost of going to university it could have an effect on demand for higher education.
"It would be the responsibility of the universities and the Government to make sure it is possible for people who might otherwise be barred because of the cost. The danger is that only those who can afford it will be able to go into higher education."
John Bangs, education officer at the National Union of Teachers, said that the loans would hit poorer youngsters hardest. "My parents were not wealthy and I would never have gone to university if it hadn't been for the grant system, and there are thousands like me," he said.