News has broken that the UK’s top Oxbridge universities are planning to charge the upper limit of £9000 tuition fees from 2012. A working group formed to propose tuition fee levels at Cambridge University has recommended a flat rate of £9000 to be charged across all courses and colleges. Meanwhile at an Oxford University meeting attended by 100 members of the university’s governing body, Pro-vice Chancellor Tony Monaco explained that whilst fees of “at least” £8000 would be required just to keep the university financially “standing still”, the upper limit of £9000 would be far more realistic if grants and waivers were to be offered to poorer students.

The debates have shown that far from stereotypical images of these elite universities greedily raking money in from students, they are merely scrambling to cover the huge losses caused by deep government cuts to university funding. As Frances Lannon, Principle of Lady Margaret Hall at Cambridge University explained; “if we were to charge fees of lower than £9000, our ability to sustain academic excellence and provide fee waivers and bursaries would be proportionately lessened. We cannot choose to lower fee income and at the same time support excellence and access in the way we passionately wish to.” However it will be the poorest students and applicants from the most disadvantaged backgrounds who will suffer, as proposals of access measures to offset the brunt of the fees seem set to fall far short of government promises.

Since the controversial proposals to raise tuition fees to an astronomical £9000, Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat Deputy Prime Minister who campaigned on a platform of abolishing fees and even signed a pledge not to raise them, has insisted that the new scheme is fairer to all and will actually make university more affordable for the poorest students. Clegg suggested that only very few universities would actually charge the highest level of £9000 tuition fees under “exceptional circumstances”, and claimed that the government would introduce extremely stringent measures to ensure that those who did so would be forced to provide enormously extensive access proposals to offset the difficulties this would cause the poorest students.

These new revelations about the levels of tuition fees likely to be charged directly contradict Clegg’s claims. The report from Cambridge University specifically predicts that “most if not all our peers” will charge the upper limit of £9000, a devastating blow to Clegg’s posturing and pretence, as it comes hot on the heels of his abandonment of another hollow promise made just before the vote; that the government would waive a year’s fees for all free school meals pupils. That hope of aid, along with the Education Maintenance Allowance, has been left abandoned in the dust by the new coalition.

Now students will have to depend on the access measures being proposed by the universities as they begin to map out their new financial positions – and the signs so far are less than encouraging.

In their fees debates, both Oxford and Cambridge universities have set out provision for bursaries and aid for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds who may be deterred from applying to top universities by the new, higher levels of tuition fees. At first sight they might appear to show promise – Cambridge is considering introducing a fee waiver of £3000 for students from the poorest backgrounds, whilst a bursary of £1625 would go to families on an income below £25,000. Yet far from fulfilling Clegg’s promise of an easier ride for the poorest students, the fee waiver still means that they will have to pay double the current rates of tuition fees. Worse still, the current bursary available at Cambridge to the most disadvantaged students is £3400, so this aid will be axed by more than half under the new proposals.

So yes, as protesters, universities and think tanks warned, almost all English universities seem set to charge the maximum level of £9000 fees. And no, Clegg’s promises of “exceptional circumstances” and “strict access measures” will not be fulfilled. No, Clegg’s claims of an easier ride for poorer students certainly will not be realised. And yes, students from disadvantaged backgrounds will almost certainly be put off applying for the best universities or indeed any university at all. The only question left is why we ever expected more from the promises of a man who turned his back on the very pledge that bought him his position in the cabinet in the first place.