A cut in tuition fees in England to £6,500 would benefit the wealthy and could hamper the opportunities for poorer students, university chiefs warned.
A commission examining higher education funding in England is reported to be examining a cut from the current £9,250 a year but critics warned that such a measure could deprive universities of funding, limiting the places available.
It would also benefit graduates who go on to high income jobs rather than those earning less who would not be expected to repay the full amount under the current system.
Dame Janet Beer, president of Universities UK, which represents vice-chancellors, said: “Students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds would be the hardest hit by a cut to fees and also from the limitation on student places, and the primary beneficiaries (would be) mid to high-income graduates because the highest earners would benefit the most.”
Rumours about a proposed cut in fees has been reported in recent days by The Times and the BBC, but the Department for Education said it would not comment on speculation and the higher education review by Philip Augar was still in progress.
Setting out the impact of cuts, Dame Janet told BBC Radio 4’s Today: “We would have less resource to support the students who we need to attract into university.
“The Augar review would seem to me to be a very missed opportunity unless we use it as a moment where we can restore more numbers to higher education, specifically part-time and matures who are almost entirely missing at the moment.”
The cut would either cost the Treasury £3 billion a year or result in a limit on the amount of undergraduates starting courses.
Dame Janet, vice-chancellor of Liverpool University, was sceptical that Philip Hammond would find the extra cash.
“I’m not confident that the Treasury has money to make up the difference and also the ideas being floated currently do nothing to address the cost of living while studying.
“We know that this is a more significant concern to undergraduates than tuition fees because at the moment poorer students come out with higher debt because they have to borrow live, whereas more middle-class students benefit from family support.”
Former education secretary Justine Greening told Today the rumoured cut would be a mistake.
“I think it’s a terrible plan,” she said. “I think it’s bad for social mobility. If you have a cap on numbers of students, we know that the ones who lose out are the ones from low-income families.
“I think it’s regressive because the people who will end up paying less in student fees will be those from the better-off families who are more likely to go to university.”
A Department for Education spokesman said: “Students are rightly concerned about value for money – that’s exactly why we are looking at how we can reform the whole system to make it fairer.
“We have already taken steps to make the system better for graduates, including by increasing the repayment threshold. But we are open-minded in our approach, and it’s important that we don’t pre-empt the outcomes of the review.”
Conservative former minister Sir Desmond Swayne, speaking at education questions in the Commons, said: “At St Andrews University, Scottish students go free and as a consequence their numbers are capped at 20% of the university population.
“Cut tuition fees and you cut opportunities for students – it’s that simple, isn’t it?”
Education minister Sam Gyimah replied: “You are, as ever, absolutely right. In Scotland, the opportunity for disadvantaged students is capped but international students is uncapped. That is not a record worth copying.”
Labour’s Wes Streeting urged the minister to rule out a future where fees for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (Stem) courses are higher than arts and humanities courses, noting: “Apparently that is under consideration.”
Mr Gyimah replied: “I will not comment on any leaks on an independent review.”