TOP universities - including one from the region - have pledged to fight growing momentum to replace tuition fees with a new ‘tax’ linked to a graduate’s income.

The Russell Group of research-intensive institutions, which includes Newcastle University, warned the switch would be unfair because foreign students and Britons emigrating would escape the charge altogether.

Instead, the group urged the government to “build on the current system” - by lifting the current £3,225-a-year cap on fees, which, it argues, leaves universities desperately short of cash.

The call comes just one day after the coalition government appeared to inch closer to some form of ‘graduate tax’, pre-empting an independent review due to report in the autumn.

David Willetts, the Conservative universities minister, echoed his Liberal Democrat boss Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, by stating his preference for scrapping fees.

The minister said the exact design of the graduate ‘contribution’ was still to be decided, but added: “As people earn more, they pay more back."

But Wendy Piatt, the director general of the 20-strong Russell Group hit back, urging the government to “build on the current system”.

She argued there was no evidence that fees dissuaded students from poorer backgrounds from applying for university, while a graduate tax had “very practical barriers”.