Library picture: Stephen Toope, now vice chancellor of the University of Cambridge, speaks at an event in Vancouver, Canada, September 2010. Photo credit: United Way of the Lower Mainland 

The government launched its review of post-18 education in February. With the Tories keen to woo young voters, following Jeremy Corbyn’s commitment to end tuition fees, a reduction of the £9,250 fees cap is widely expected. But vice-chancellors say quality could be threatened if the government does not plug any gap with new funding.

Unlike other universities, Oxford and Cambridge say fees, even at £9,250, do not cover the costs of the tutorial-led teaching for which they are famous. A spokesperson for Cambridge would not comment about going private, but said each student costs an average of £18,500 a year to teach.

If they declared themselves independent, they could set their own fees and not have to endure state regulation, which requires them to prove the quality of their research – and what they do with it – plus that of their teaching and the amount their graduates earn.

Matt Robb, of EY-Parthenon, a consultancy that advises universities, says: “Oxford and Cambridge are currently in the top five institutions in the world. If that status were threatened by loss of funding or other factors, and this was the only solution, I think they wouldn’t blink in pushing to go private.”

Some experts argue that this could solve a conundrum for ministers, who want to cut fees but don’t want to damage two such stellar British brands.

Lord Butler, a crossbench peer and former master of University College Oxford, argues: “If the government looks at its interests clearly it ought to be sympathetic and encouraging towards this idea. It would save a lot of money [on loans and teaching funding]. It would be a very good solution for some leading universities to be cut loose, on the condition that they had a needs-blind admissions system [with no one turned away because they can’t afford the fees].”

Butler adds that other elite universities might follow. A senior Oxbridge college figure agrees: “It would really only work if Oxford and Cambridge, Imperial College London, UCL, Kings College London and the LSE all went together.”

Speculation about what the top two could charge students varies, but several insiders suggest around £15,000. They insist this would allow Oxbridge to follow Harvard University and offer “needs blind” admissions. One academic manager says: “Perhaps just one third of students might pay the actual sticker price.” But such high fees would still stir up huge controversy.

Lord Butler says: “I think the government might be anxious that independent universities would become like private schools and would be largely confined to the well off. However, that needn’t be the case as universities with strong brands could ensure that access could be completely means tested, with bursaries for families who could not afford the fees.”

However Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute thinktank, says: “If they walk away from the regulatory system they are basically the same as private schools. No one chases Eton hard about needs-blind admissions.” If admissions were scrupulously fair, the private universities would be less likely to spend as much time and money on going into state schools and searching for talented students.

People often talk about admissions in America in a very positive light, but although there are needs-blind admissions, Ivy League universities also give places to the children of donors and alumni. Part of moulding a class is handpicking the wealthy.”

Money is not the only driver behind the latest rumblings. There is also resentment about the government’s drive to treat students as consumers and to assess the value universities offer them.

Stephen Toope, Cambridge’s vice-chancellor, blogged last month: “For a generation now, politicians of all stripes have talked as if UK universities are broken, and hence in need of ‘market discipline’. They talk as if our students, smart and energetic people, are in need of protection. This is an own goal.”

Another vice-chancellor, who has asked not to be named, says: “We are seeing a real threat to institutional autonomy from ministers. I think right now we must be the closest we’ve ever been to a point where Oxford and Cambridge will turn round and say, ‘Sod this, we are fed up with being criticised, we’ll go private’.”

But many in the sector think this is a leap too far. Prof Simon Marginson, director of the centre for global higher education at UCL’s Institute of Education, agrees that deregulation is one “obvious answer” for Oxford and Cambridge, but says that changing the relationship between universities and the state would be hugely problematic.

“In political terms, giving these universities what they want is the opposite of what the government needs to do at the moment,” he says. “It needs to show it is supporting poor people, not elite universities.”

Anna Fazackerley