Regulator criticised as universities are cleared to charge £9,000 fees

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The Independent Online

Most universities in England are being allowed to charge the maximum tuition fee of £9,000 a year for at least some of their courses.

The universities regulator, the Office for Fair Access (Offa), said it had given approval to 80 of the 123 universities in England to charge the maximum amount for certain courses, with 48 of these levying the top rate for all subjects.

Last night, it emerged that not a single university has been told to lower its fees, with all institutions having their access agreements signed off by Offa as a result of the regulator's scrutiny. Any university which wished to charge more than £6,000 a year had to sign a deal with Offa aimed at encouraging disadvantaged students to apply.

All 123 universities – as well as 16 further education colleges – sought permission to charge more. "Not one university that increased fees to £9,000 has been told to lower their fees and not one access agreement has been rejected despite David Cameron and Nick Clegg's grand claims," said Gareth Thomas, the shadow Universities minister.

Sally Hunt, the general secretary of the University and College Union, added: "The rubber-stamping of higher fees will entrench our position as the most expensive place to study a private degree in the world."

According to Offa, the average fee from September will be £8,393 a year. However, this reduces to £8,161 a year when waivers for the poorest students are taken into account. The percentage of students paying the full £9,000 a year was expected to be "significantly" lower than half, Offa added. Its director, Sir Graeme Davies, said: "We are not responsible for fee-setting. That is done elsewhere. We're an access regulator not a financial regulator."

However, when Oxford and Cambridge universities said months ago that they planned to charge the maximum, Mr Clegg said it was not up to them to decide their fees but the regulator. Offa negotiated with 52 institutions, including the elite Russell Group of universities, about improving their access agreements, either by spending more on trying to recruit disadvantaged students, or by setting stiffer recruitment targets. As a result, the universities agreed to spend an extra £21m on access, bringing the total to £602m a year by 2015-16, up from £407m in 2011-12.

The crunch will come next year if universities fail to abide by their access agreements or miss their recruitment targets. Offa has the power to levy fines or refuse to sign their agreements, effectively forcing them to cut their fees.

Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group, said its members were spending 32.3 per cent of their fee income above £6,000 a year on widening access – more than many other universities.

"We remain concerned that the access agreements risk focusing too much on regulation rather than resolving the real problems: underachievement at school and poor advice on the best choices of A-level subjects and university courses," she said. "Financial penalties for not meeting these targets would not only be unfair but they would also reduce money available for programmes to help poorer students."