Middle-class parents should be prepared to spend more on their children's university education, according to the chancellor of Oxford University, Lord Patten, who yesterday urged the government to remove the "intolerably low" £3,140 cap on student fees.
The removal of the cap would pave the way for mortgage-style graduate debts of £50,000 or more for some courses at the top universities, in a move which Patten acknowledged would be deeply controversial with families and politically difficult for any government.
He accused the government of infringing universities' independence and treating them like "social security offices" instead of academic institutions in a drive to improve education and social mobility.
Oxford University, which has had a public row with senior government ministers in recent weeks over private schools' domination of admissions, would reject any attempt by the government to widen its intake by lowering standards, he told the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference annual meeting in London yesterday. "The sense that many universities have is that they are being asked to make up for the deficiencies of secondary education," he said. "If this were the aim, it would be a fool's mission."
Patten, a former Conservative minister and governor of Hong Kong who is now chancellor of Oxford and Newcastle Universities, said that if taxpayers' contribution to universities was not increased, and private donations continued to trail behind the multibillion-dollar system in the US, students would have to pay more for their education.
He went on: "Can there be a middle-class objection to higher fees? It is surely a mad world in which parents or grandparents are prepared to shell out tens of thousands of pounds to put their children through private schools to get them into universities, and then object to them paying a tuition fee of more than £3,000 when they are there."
Asked later how much students should pay, he said he believed that the fee cap should be lifted altogether, giving universities the freedom to set their own fees. But that he accepted it was politically difficult and the government would first have to increase fees incrementally.
Patten's comments suggest that Oxford, and perhaps other leading universities, will campaign to be allowed to charge students more in a review of fees planned for next year.
Patten said that there was "no chance" of Oxford meeting government targets for increasing the proportion of state pupils it admits until state schools caught up with private schools in A-level results. Last year, only 58% of applications came from state school pupils although state schools educate 93% of pupils. He told the private school heads they could help by running courses for state school pupils on applying to Oxbridge.
"Universities are a crucial part of civil society, part of the infrastructure of a plural, liberal society. Their vice-chancellors and governing bodies have to account for their use of the taxpayer's money. But they should not be treated - or behave themselves - like local social security offices," he said.
The secretary of state for universities, John Denham, replied in a letter to the Evening Standard in London that it was "hard to believe" that universities already offered places to all the brightest teenagers in the country. He accused Oxford of setting its sights "too low".
Wes Streeting, president of the National union of Students, said: "It is astonishing that, in the middle of a credit crunch, Chris Patten is proposing that hard-working families pay even more towards the cost of higher education.
"At the moment, the average student in London will leave university with over £17,000 of debt. With food and utility bills set to rise even higher, the financial burden on students and parents alike is potentially catastrophic, even without Chris Patten's harebrained scheme."