More than a third of universities in England have been granted permission to charge £9,000 a year for each of their courses, the fees watchdog confirmed on Tuesday.
Some 58 percent will charge the maximum £9,000 for at least one of their undergraduate courses, the Office for Fair Access (Offa) revealed. The average student starting a degree next year faces annual fees of almost £8,500.
Ministers say far more money will now be spent on encouraging students from poorer families to attend university, because institutions which intend to charge more than £6,000 must get Offa to approve their plans for widening access.
These "access agreements" will be reviewed each year, with universities facing fines or losing the right to charge more than £6,000 if they fail to meet their agreed targets for recruiting and retaining poorer students.
"Progress over the past few years in securing fair access to the most selective universities has been inadequate," said Business Secretary Vince Cable. "Only around 40 pupils out of the 80,000 on free school meals currently make it to Oxbridge at the moment."
Offa confirmed on Tuesday that it had received access agreements from 123 universities, plus 18 further education (FE) colleges. Of these, all but two, both from FE colleges, have been approved.
Of those that have had their access agreements approved, 80 universities and one FE college (58 percent) will now charge the maximum annual fee of £9,000 for at least one of their courses.
Some 38 percent of universities 47 out of the 123 that submitted proposals -- will charge £9,000 for all courses. This includes many of England's leading universities, including Oxford and Cambridge.
But Offa insisted that only 7 percent of institutions will be charging their average student £9,000, after fee waivers for poorer students are taken into account.
These are Bradford University; Durham University; University of East London; University College Falmouth; Lincoln University; University of the Arts London; University College London; University of the West of England, Bristol; and Plymouth College of Art.
These ten are likely to provide bursaries or other forms of support for poorer students, instead of waiving fees.
Overall, students starting undergraduate courses in autumn 2012 face an estimated average fee of £8,393, compared to the government's original estimate of £7,500. Once fee waivers are taken into account this is reduced to £8,161.
Altogether, universities and colleges plan to spend £602 million a year by 2015-16 on helping students from disadvantaged backgrounds, as well as those with disabilities and those from some ethnic minorities, to attend university.
The money will go on fee waivers, bursaries and "outreach" activities such as summer schools. There will also be funding for the National Scholarship Programme, providing one-year grants to students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
"These agreements represent a considerable commitment by universities and colleges to improving access for students who are under-represented in higher education and, where appropriate, improving retention and student success," said Sir Graeme Davis, Offa's Director of Fair Access.
But Liam Burns, president of the National Union of Students (NUS), said: "Fee waivers are being used in a cynical attempt to cover up the mess made when the Government trebled the tuition fee cap, instead of properly supporting less-wealthy students.
"Business Secretary Vince Cable had stated that fees over £6,000 would only be levied in exceptional circumstances but his solemn promise has quite clearly now been left in tatters."
He added: "If access agreements are to be worth more than the paper they're written on, they must be genuinely binding and Offa must be given real powers to hold institutions to account when they fail to deliver."