The first aspiring students who will pay new tuition fees for higher education are already submitting applications to their chosen universities and colleges. Yet as they fill their UCAS forms, there are still crucial questions to be answered. How will fees be collected? How are parents to be means-tested? What, exactly, will be the destination of fee income?
Local education authorities and universities, as well as parents and students, are all anxious for more information, and some warn of chaos next year if the Government does not swiftly clarify its plans.
Ministers have promised answers quickly, but, given the urgent need to bring in extra funds for universities, will resist all pressure to delay change.
As the countdown to fees begins, Lucy Ward looks at the obstacles lying ahead.
The Local Education Authorities
Local education authorities, like all other players in higher education, know that they will have to move quickly to have any hope of meeting the tight timetable for fees.
Under the new funding plans, authorities will have responsibility for means-testing parents of prospective students to work out how much, if anything, they should contribute towards the cost of tuition fees and maintenance.
They will have to keep the present grants and fees scheme going in parallel with the new one until all students currently at university have left
A technical working group set up by the Department for Education and Employment is finalising the details of implementation. Authorities are also waiting for confirmation of grant rates for next year. Ministers have said they intend to cut the level of maintenance grants by half in 1998-1999 as a half-way house to abolishing them completely the following year.
If the system is to go live as planned next April, by which time university applicants will be accepting offers, authorities say that they will need full details of their role by early December at the latest. That will leave them the minimum time possible to produce and test new software with some leeway to deal with any problems.
The process will not be helped by the fact that at present LEAs use a wide range of computer packages, either bought off the shelf or developed in-house, to process grant applications.
LEAs will also have to produce new assessment forms and other stationery to reflect the new funding regime.
The second major concern among local authorities centres on their new role in means-testing European Union students to determine whether they must contribute towards fees. At present, awards for the 75,000 EU students in British universities are simple for LEAs to process: all such students are eligible for full fees, but no maintenance grants or loans.
Under the new system, they will still have no access to loans, but under EU law they must be treated on the same basis as home students as far as tuition fees are concerned.
That means that LEAs will have to assess the income of families in Athens and Madrid, just as they would for families in Stockport and Luton. Grants officers express alarm at the prospect of grappling with a wide range of payments and tax systems, against a looming deadline.
Since EU students will be assessed by the authority closest to their chosen university, LEAs such as Westminster - whose local universities enrol large numbers of foreign students - will find themselves processing thousands of overseas assessments.
After initial uncertainty, universities now know they will be responsible for collecting tuition fees from students or their families, who will be expected to pay a range of charges - from nothing at all to a maximum of pounds 1,000 for each year of study.
It will also be up to individual institutions to chase up defaulters, or risk losing out on funding.
With less than a year to go before the system begins, many registrars are privately deeply concerned at the prospect of implementing changes within the timescale.
One major source of alarm is the fact that the results of local authority means tests determining how much students should pay towards fees are not expected until November of next autumn term. That means universities, which currently receive tuition funding up-front from LEAs at the start of term, face a delay in even knowing who owes them what. They will then have to invoice students and LEAs and wait for the cash to arrive.
Where money does not come in, institutions will begin pursuing non-payers, with the ultimate sanction of barring a student from completing their course, or withholding the qualification of those who have finished. The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals is publicly playing down concerns over default rates, pointing out that many universities already collect substantial sums in fees from part-timers.
However, registrars say many current fee-payers are adults taking short post-graduate courses whose solid repayment record is no indicator of the behaviour of thousands of teenage undergraduates.
Universities also face the prospect of, for the first time, chasing up EU students who default on tuition fees. Some may decide that it is cheaper not to pursue non-payers.
Another worry for universities is the difficulty they face at present in giving potential students accurate information over the likely cost of courses while the details of the fees scheme remain incomplete.
Meanwhile, the CVCP continues to lobby the Government over perhaps the most crucial unanswered question for the sector - how much of the extra cash brought in through fees will be pumped back into higher education. The Education Secretary, David Blunkett, has announced that pounds 165m extra will be made available next year, but there are no guarantees beyond that.
A short fees guide published by the DfEE is now available to prospective students (free order line, 0800 731 9133), but the leaflet includes a warning that the proposals are still subject to agreement by Parliament.
Among the questions not answered in the guide is the cost to fee-paying students of foundation years and work placements in industry. Universities understand that students will have to pay pounds 500 in fees for a sandwich year spent entirely on a work placement or abroad as part of a language course, and pounds 1,000 for a foundation year or each year of a so-called "thin sandwich" course involving two separate six-month work placements.
However, the DfEE says charges for such courses have still to be finally decided. It has also still to make clear how old students must be before their income is assessed independently of their parents', and how their spouse's income will be taken into account.
Medical and dental students will have to pay fees for the first four years of their courses, but tuition costs will subsequently be covered by the Department of Health. Means-tested bursaries will also be available from year five onwards. Students of nursing, midwifery and professions allied to medicine such as chiropody and speech therapy will have all tuition fees paid by the Department of Health.
The Dearing report on higher education, which recommended introducing tuition fees, proposed a change in national accounting rules so that loans to students were no longer treated as if they were grants. Assuming in the accounts that at least some of the cash would be repaid would free up money to help solve the immediate higher education funding crisis, the report said.
However, Mr Blunkett and DfEE officials are still battling for the change with the Treasury. Alternative plans to realise funds quickly include selling the student debt to the private sector.
The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service is concerned that students are applying to university and may be offered places without knowing precisely what they will be expected to pay. Accepting a university place constitutes a contract agreed by student and institution, but UCAS is questioning the legal position if applicants are not sure of the full terms of the deal.Reuse content