Top-up fees may be waived after Wales wins control of student funding

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The Independent Online

Top-up fees could be ruled out in Welsh universities as a result of a decision yesterday to give the principality's Assembly control over student funding.

Top-up fees could be ruled out in Welsh universities as a result of a decision yesterday to give the principality's Assembly control over student funding.

The move is likely to lead to increased pressure from backbench Labour MPs for the Government to abandon the idea. Student leaders said it could lead to an increase in applications to Welsh universities from candidates in England. Scotland's decision not to impose upfront tuition fees led to a rise in demand for places.

Announcing the decision, Peter Hain, the Secretary of State for Wales, said: "Student support is already a devolved responsibility in both Scotland and Northern Ireland." The new powers, which will be written into legislation giving universities the powers to charge top-up fees of up to £3,000 a year this autumn, will come into effect in 2006. This is when ministers plan to allow the charges to go ahead in England.

The Welsh Assembly has already pledged, as a result of a Labour manifesto commitment, to rule out top-up fees for the lifetime of the present Assembly. The next elections are due to be held in 2007. But Jane Davidson, the Minister for Education in Wales, went further yesterday and announced an independent inquiry into whether to charge top-up fees in Wales's seven universities at all.

If Wales exempts its universities from charging top-up fees, students from England attending Welsh universities would not have to pay them. But Welsh students studying at English universities would have to pay.

The decision to devolve powers is likely to lead to a rerun of the row over government plans for foundation hospitals. A revolt over foundation hospitals by backbench Labour MPs only failed because Scottish and Welsh Labour MPs, who were not affected by the proposals, voted in favour. More than 170 Labour MPs have signed a Commons motion opposing top-up fees.

* Figures published today show that university applications from young people in England and Wales have increased this year after falling in 2002. The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) says applications from under-21-year-olds in England rose by 1.5 per cent and by 1.1 per cent in Wales. Applications for places in Scotland rose by 2.9 per cent.

Applications for two-year foundation degrees - seen as the main way to widen participation in higher education - more than doubled.

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