England's universities are to be allowed to charge tuition fees of up to £3,000 a year, under plans confirmed in the Queen's Speech.
Proposed legislation on fees was included in the Queen's Speech
They will get the controversial powers from September 2006, if the Higher Education Bill is passed by parliament.
Dozens of Labour MPs are against the proposals, which are also opposed by the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and students' groups.
The Welsh Assembly is to be freed to make its own decision on "top-up fees".
In her speech to parliament, the Queen said: "A bill will be introduced to enable more young people to benefit from higher education.
"Upfront tuition fees will be abolished for full-time students and a new Office for Fair Access will assist those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
"Universities will be placed on a solid financial footing."
The Department for Education and Skills confirmed universities would be freed to charge anything from nothing to £3,000 for courses.
The fees will only be paid back once students have graduated, started work, and are earning more than £15,000 a year.
On Tuesday, a survey suggested most universities would charge the maximum £3,000 "top-up" fee, which would mean a trebling of the present fee for students.
In the survey on tuition fee intentions, BBC researchers contacted 83 universities in England in what is thought to be the most comprehensive audit yet of their intentions.
Of the 42 which responded in detail, 90% said they would or might charge students the full £3,000 a year.
Almost two-thirds said they had decided definitely to charge the full amount, while only 10% said they would definitely charge less.
Half were not convinced that £3,000 tuition fees would be enough.
A quarter said they would like to charge more - ideally between £5,000 and £7,000.
One thing the universities will be especially keen to see when the Education Bill is outlined more fully in the Commons, is what, if any, provision the government wants to make for bursary schemes.
Means-tested £1,000 grants from 2004
Upfront tuition fees end 2006
Fees then vary - up to £3,000 a year
First £1,125 subsidised for poor
Payable from graduate salary of £15,000+
Zero-rated student loan up to £4,000 a year
New access regulator
Research funding for the elite
50% participation through foundation degrees
Education ministers have made it clear they see these as a way of bridging the gap between the extra support they are providing for poorer students and the £3,000 many universities will charge.
They plan a return of means-tested grants from 2004 and exemption from the first £1,125 of fees for those on the lowest family incomes.
One possible model is Scotland, where tuition fees were never levied. There, graduates earning more than £10,000 instead contribute £2,000 to a fund for hardship grants for poorer undergraduates.
The National Union of Students (NUS) has been campaigning against the introduction
of variable tuition fees, arguing that they will work against students from low-income backgrounds.
They say funding for the planned expansion of higher education should come from the public purse.
Some of England's more elite institutions have made it clear they are opposed to having to hand over some of the extra fee income they get to fund a central bursary "pot" to help out students elsewhere.
Partly this is about their jealously-guarded autonomy, and partly because they say they need all the extra money themselves - and more - to compete internationally.
While the government cannot be sure of its own backbenchers' support, it will certainly be opposed by other parties.
The Conservatives want to do away with tuition fees altogether - and limit the numbers of people going into higher education.
The Liberal Democrats recognise that more money is needed but would pay for it by higher taxes on the better off.
It is thought ministers will introduce their draft legislation perhaps as early as next week, subject to agreement on the Parliamentary timetable.
Students have held a long-running battle against the plans
The Education Secretary Charles Clarke later defended the government's plans, saying university would once again be free
to students while they are studying.
"Neither they nor their parents will have to pay any fees before or whilst
they are studying," he said.
That would be of particular benefit to the families who earned just enough to
be liable for the full £1,125 fee, he said.
"The key to our package is that it is fair at the point of repayment.
"Graduates will start paying back only when they earn over £15,000, and then it is directly linked to their income.
"Payments will not be based on what you owe, they will be based on what you
earn, like pension or national insurance contributions."
The Higher Education Bill will also create a low-cost mechanism for dealing with students'
complaints about their university, the government says.
It will also set up an Arts and Humanities Research