Universities are being told to cut tuition fees so they can recruit more students through a Coalition scheme.

The Government’s Office for Fair Access has told vice-chancellors to keep fees below £7,500 a year so they can claim a share of 20,000 free places for next year.

The places will be reserved for full-time undergraduates at the cheapest universities, charging under £7,500.

Ministers are desperately trying to lower fees to reduce fears of graduates receiving billions of pounds that they will never be able to pay back.

The plan is to effectively take 20,000 places away from universities that charge more, and redistribute them to the universities charging less for courses.

Over a third of universities plan to charge £9,000 per year from 2012, which will be the maximum permitted, and the average fee is set to be around £8,393.

But now at least 12 universities – ten per cent of England’s universities – are considering cutting fees so they qualify for the scheme.

Labour has criticised the plan, saying it would make higher education into a “two-tier” system.

Raising of university fees leads to government funding shortfall

Gareth Thomas, the shadow universities minister, said: “No student should have to face paying £9,000 tuition fees. The fees set by universities are a mess of the Government’s own making after they cut university funding by 80 per cent and allowed tuition fees to treble.

“We now risk a two-tier university system emerging; some universities charging £9,000 and being very well-funded, while the majority of students attend poorer universities charging only slightly lower fees, yet being hit hardest by cuts in Government funding.”

Most students will take out subsidised Government loans to cover the costs of university, which will be repaid on a sliding scale when they are earning over £21,000.