An independent commission has been established to monitor the impact of increased university fees in England over the next three years, it was announced today.
The four-person panel, chaired by journalist Will Hutton, will produce a series of reports assessing the impact of the increase in fees on application and admissions trends in universities, considering in particular the effect on young people from low and middle income backgrounds.
This year will be the first time English higher education institutions are able to charge students up to £9,000 a year for tuition fees, repaid through graduate contributions after university.
Hutton said: "It is incredibly important that we provide an independent check on the biggest reforms for higher education in a generation, particularly looking at what impact higher fees have on prospective students from less privileged backgrounds.
"We will be keeping an open mind; the aim will be to produce a dispassionate and authoritative analysis of the data as it emerges.
"We are extremely grateful to the Ucas (the university admissions service) for their co-operation in helping with the commission's work."
The four members of the panel at present are: Hutton, principal of Hertford College, Oxford University, and executive vice-chair of the Work Foundation; Stephen Machin, Professor of Economics at University College London and research director of the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics; Libby Purves, writer, radio broadcaster and Times chief theatre critic; and Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust and the Education Endowment Foundation.
The commission will produce three reports a year, considering a number of key issues, including the admissions of non-privileged students to highly selective universities, and particular subjects. The secretariat and analytical support will be provided by the Sutton Trust.
Liam Burns, president of the National Union of Students, said there were "worrying signs" of fewer university applicants during the application process for this year.
He said: "A balanced and truly independent analysis that puts aside any of the panellists' preconceptions about the merits or otherwise of the fees system is vital to ensure vulnerable students do not have to abandon their ambitions in higher education.
"We look forward to working with the commission as they move forward.
"Our hope is that they will examine closely access across the entire higher education sector than simply at so-called elite universities.
"It is crucial that they consider the full range of barriers to participation, including factors such as cultural capital, debt aversion, access to student support and bursaries.
"That ministers have failed to commit to commissioning their own analysis of the impact of their changes highlights the lack of thought that has gone into the creation and development of the Government's higher education policy which has radically altered the funding landscape and caused widespread public concern."
A spokesman for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said: "We look forward to working with all interested parties as our reforms take effect.
"No-one should be put off going to university for financial reasons.
"All eligible new students will not have to pay tuition charges up front, there will be more financial support for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, and everyone will make lower monthly loan repayments than they do under the current system once they are in well-paid work.
"We have ensured that universities take fair access more seriously than ever before."