UK: Two in three universities to charge top fee

Two out of three universities in England are seeking to charge the maximum allowed £9,000 (US$14,690) a year in tuition fees, according to an updated BBC survey of 71 higher education institutions.

The finding - published on the day of the deadline for universities to submit their fee and fair access plans for 2012 to the Office for Fair Access if they wish to charge more than £6,000 - contrasts with government claims that the maximum fee would be the exception rather than the rule.

Writing in the Guardian David Willetts, the Universities Minister, said: "The reality is that lots of students will not face fees anything close to £9,000 a year including those at the most prestigious universities."

He said fair access plans and variable charging would make the average charge lower and cited the examples of Warwick University and London Metropolitan University.

Warwick, although planning to charge the maximum fee, will make available bursaries and waivers of up to £4,500 to students from families earning less than £25,000.

London Met, meanwhile, is proposing to charge different fees for different courses, starting at £6,000, with an average fee of £6,850.

However, the BBC survey reported that 39 of the 47 universities wanting to charge £9,000 said they would do so for all courses.

Willetts said the switch to allocating money via fees and loans instead of via a teaching grant will open up higher education to a wider range of providers doing things differently.

"Universities will get this money by focusing on the teaching experience for students, which has been their greatest weakness," he said.

Opponents say the raising of fees from the current £3,290 limit will deter young people from going to university and argue that since many more universities than anticipated by the government plan to charge top fees, there will be a hole in financing of higher education as public money will be used to finance higher levels of student debt.

Liam Burns, president-elect of the National Union of Students, said independent studies show that the prospect of emerging with £40,000 of debt is seen as too great a risk to take by many prospective students.

Labour leader Ed Milliband warned on Tuesday that at least 10% of university places for undergraduates will have to be cut to fund the higher cost of student loans required to pay the higher-than-expected tuition fees.

According to figures submitted to the House of Commons Library, an average fee of £8,500 would create a £450 million shortfall in 2014-15 and filling the funding black hole could mean cutting as many as 36,000 student places, he said.

London Met, which is one of the country's largest universities and had the greatest proportion of working-class students of any UK university last year - 57.2% compared to 32.3% nationally - is planning to cut the number of courses it offers by 70%.

Malcolm Gillies, London Met's Vice-chancellor, said the cuts were necessary to offer better value for students. He told Channel 4 News that he expected London Met's average fee in 2012 to be £6,850. "I would have thought that would give access to people of all backgrounds," he said.

But the University and College Union's London Met branch said the cuts would deprive working class, ethnic minority students of the opportunity to study any non-vocational course.

Humanities courses such as history, philosophy and performing arts are said to be among those most likely to be cut when a final decision is made in June.

The Office for Fair Access will assess the fee plans along with universities' plans for securing fair access for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and will approve fee rates in July.

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UK: Higher education market - conflicting messages