Nick Clegg has promised the government will not increase tuition fees to £16,000, but defended himself against the "polemic" attacks on the current £9,000 limit agreed by the coalition.
Last week the vice-chancellor of Oxford University, professor Andrew Hamilton, said the he should be able to charge more for tuition and pointed out that it costs £16,000 a year to educate a student at the university.
Lib Dem MPs hope that by 2015 the party will be forgiven for its decision to abandon its pre-election pledge to oppose any rise in tuition fees. But speaking to a group of teenagers and young adults in central London on Monday morning, the deputy prime minister was tackled on the issue.
"Don't worry, we're not going to raise tuition fees to £16,000," Clegg said. And he urged them to set aside the "controversy and polemic" against the £9,000 cap on fees and remember that students do not have to pay anything up front under the coalition's system
"I know more than anybody else in British politics how controversial this is," he admitted. The Lib Dem leader asked potential students to look at "the reality of the system rather than some of the allegations that were thrown at it because theres quite a big gap between the two".
He said: "Whether you agree or disagree with the policy, whether you think its right or wrong, the really important thing to remember, and its been forgotten in the anger and all the rest of it, is if you're an eligible student you don't have to pay anything up front at all and you don't pay back if you can't."
Clegg added: "Most estimates suggest the government will be writing of the debt of many many graduates. It's ironic the ticket price has gone up, but actually what you have to pay out every month and every week has gone down."
The Lib Dem leader was speaking at an event to open Wayra UnLtd, the government and Telefónica-backed London Academy which supports social venture start-ups with mentoring and seed-funding.
Clegg opened the scheme by ringing a bell and signing his name to the wall. "In the UK we are seeing a surge of entrepreneurship and enterprise, with younger people often leading the way and seizing the opportunities offered by digital technology," he said.
"It is fantastic that Telefónica is backing their talents and abilities through initiatives such as Wayra UnLtd - offering support to those who need it and helping them grow their businesses and social ventures."
Last year Clegg tried to draw a line under the damaging tuition fees policy u-turn by making a public apology for making a promise he was unable to keep. A video appearance that was famously autotuned and mocked.