Universities given 14 days to justify fees

Students face uncertain wait as Government tries to get institutions to redraw access plans

Hundreds of thousands of students applying for university places in 2012 are facing weeks of uncertainty over the Government's attempt to persuade institutions to lower tuition fees.

Twenty-eight universities in England – around a fifth of the total – are now considering dropping fees to below £7,500 a year in order to qualify for some of the 20,000 places held back by ministers in June, the admissions watchdog, the Office for Fair Access (Offa), announced yesterday. Eight institutions have already submitted new proposals to lower the amount they previously planned to charge.

The National Union of Students (NUS) said the hastily drawn-up plans had plunged this year's already troubled application process into further chaos as many students were in the midst of deciding where they wanted to go next year.

They will face a confusing wait until the new arrangements are finalised just six weeks ahead of January's Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) deadline. Universities are engaged in a race against time after being given just two weeks to redraw their access plans designed to minimise the effect of the tripling of tuition fees which comes into force next year.

Those likely to be affected will be applying to so-called "middle-ranking" universities, while elite institutions such as Oxford and Cambridge and the Russell Group – which are charging the maximum £9,000 – are unlikely to alter their plans. However, with no new money on the table it is unlikely to provide much short-term financial relief for students.

The confusion has arisen after universities were required to finalise fees and bursary levels in April with Offa. This was thrown into disarray three months later when the Government announced major changes to its White Paper designed to drive down the current average fee of £8,393. At present, only 29 out of 140 institutions charge less than £7,500 a year.

Toni Pearce, NUS vice-president, said funding changes are continuing to wreak havoc. "To cover for its own, expensive mistakes, the Government is sledge-hammering into place an artificial market that treats students as pieces to be traded, gives them no power to demand the support they need and encourages the poorest students to seek out the least-funded courses," she said.

Offa said it could not issue its new guidelines to universities and colleges until the Higher Education Funding Council for England had published details of how institutions could bid for the places.

Sir Martin Harris, the director for fair access at Offa, said he had sought to minimise the impact on applicants. "Our resulting guidance makes it clear applicants must continue to receive the same overall level of financial support – even if the balance changes between bursaries and fee waivers – and must receive sufficient warning of any revised package to enable them to change their university choices, if they so wish, without prejudice before the Ucas deadline of 15 January," he said.