End of an era: university tuition fees were introduced in 1998
The National Union of Students has dropped its longstanding opposition to university tuition fees.
The union, representing seven million UK students, backs free education but says it wants a more pragmatic approach to the debate on student finance.
Instead, it has adopted a policy of campaigning against any rise in the existing £3,300 cap on yearly fees.
The government is likely to face calls for the fees limit to be lifted when it reviews university funding in 2009.
Some universities have called for fees to be raised to £8,000 a year.
The change in policy came at the NUS annual conference this week, when delegates backed a motion mandating the union to draw up an alternative funding strategy which it can present to ministers.
An NUS spokeswoman said: "Rather than just saying we want to simply abolish fees, our policy team are going to work with different economic experts to look at ways of funding higher education.
"It's about how we can really engage intelligently in the debate. It's about having something to take to the table, to be able to contribute something to the discussions."
Incoming NUS president Wes Streeting said it was about finding a "pragmatic approach".
He said: "The resolution from this week's conference shows the majority of our members want their national union to have a real and serious voice in the fight for a fairer funding system.
"We have a clear mandate to create a positive alternative model for the future funding of the sector, and we remain committed to stopping the dangerous marketisation of our education system."
The motion also opposed any market in higher education which allows universities to levy different charges.
The union campaigned against the introduction of fees in 1998 and variable tuition fees in 2006.
Student leaders voiced concerns that fees would deter students from poorer backgrounds from going to universities.
But a string of national protests over the years since they were brought in has failed to overturn them.
With the introduction of variable fees the government brought in a new finance package which means no student has to pay the tuition charges up front.
Instead, they pay back an inflation-linked student loan once they have graduated and earn enough to be able to do so.
Fees directly affect students in England and Northern Ireland and, to an extent, students from there studying in Scotland and Wales.