EDUCATION Secretary Charles Clarke has slapped down Liverpool University over its bid to charge top-up fees of £5,000 a year.
In a response to a select committee report, Mr Clarke insisted that cap of £3,000 would be imposed when the controversial fees are introduced in 2006.
Higher fees - as demanded by Liverpool and other members of the Russell Group of elite universities - would "threaten access" by less well-off students, he said.
Mr Clarke hit back after the Russell Group announced plans to break rank by allowing its members to set their own levels of pay and tuition fees.
Liverpool and the other top universities believe annual fees of £5,000 would be a fair reflection of the higher quality of learning they offer.
In his official response to the committee's report on the future of higher education, Mr Clarke insisted it was not inevitable that all universities would charge £3,000 from 2006.
He added: "Nor do we accept that it is logical for the fee cap to be set at £5,000. We believe that a fee cap of £3,000 strikes the correct balance between allowing universities the freedom to raise significant extra finance, while not threatening access." Under the government's plans, upfront fees of £1,100 will be scrapped and replaced by fees of up to £3,000, to be repaid after university by those earning more than £15,000.
Any institution wanting to charge more than £1,100 would have to satisfy an independent regulator that it was admitting sufficient students from poorer backgrounds.
In his response, Mr Clarke suggested the poorest students could have more than £1,100 paid by the taxpayer, in a concession to his backbench critics.
Mr Clarke also insisted students will be repaying less than they currently are, with someone earning £20,000 repaying only £8.65 a week. But critics argue that the more generous repayment schedules will mean that some students will still be paying back their loans when they are pensioners.
More than 100 Labour MPs have signed early-day motions opposing top-up fees - suggesting the government will struggle to force its plans through the Commons.
The spectre of £5,000 fees has also angered the National Union of dents, which claimed it would price out talented teenagers who cannot afford them.
The Russell Group represents the vice chancellors and principals of 19 of the country's biggest universities, including Oxford, Cambridge, Warwick, Leeds, Birmingham, Manchester, and Edinburgh.