Universities opt for maximum top-up fees

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Almost all of the country's 120 universities are to charge students the maximum £3,000 top-up fees under an agreement with the Government's access "tsar". The decision, announced today, means that students starting degree courses are facing a £9,000 bill for their education, before they pay for accommodation and living costs.

Almost all of the country's 120 universities are to charge students the maximum £3,000 top-up fees under an agreement with the Government's access "tsar". The decision, announced today, means that students starting degree courses are facing a £9,000 bill for their education, before they pay for accommodation and living costs.

In all, 112 higher education institutions have been told they can charge the maximum from September 2006. Only eight have sought to undercut the maximum, with the lowest charge - £2,000 a year - levied by Leeds Metropolitan University.

Today's decision comes in the wake of universities agreeing to pay unprecedented amounts in bursaries and scholarships to students from the poorest homes.

The Office for Fair Access (Offa), the Government quango which is charged with reaching access agreements to widen participation with all universities, estimates that 400,000 of the 825,000 students in higher education in 2006 will receive a mixture of government grants and bursaries.

On top of that, one in three universities - including most members of the Russell Group, which represents the leading 19 research institutions in the country - will be offering extra scholarships in the hope of luring the brightest students.

A survey of the 120 agreements reveals 35 per cent are offering scholarships of between £500 and £5,000 based on academic merit.

Universities in England will be ploughing £350m a year in help to needy students - almost twice the £200m anticipated by Sir Martin Harris, director of Offa, when he took office six months ago. The cash will come from the £1.3bn a year the universities are expected to raise by increasing their fees.

The maximum bursary will be £23,100 over a three-year degree course - £2,700 in renewed government grants to less well-off students plus university grants of £5,000 a year. Only a handful of universities will pay this to some of their students - including Oxford, Cambridge and Manchester. The average is £11,000 a year.

"I think what you can say is we've gone a very long way to establishing a 'needs-blind' admissions policy," said Sir Martin. "No student needs to feel deterred from applying to university on financial grounds."

The eight institutions to charge less than £3,000 a year include three fully fledged universities: Leeds Metropolitan with £2,000 a year, Greenwich with £2,500 and Thames Valley with £2,700. The other five are colleges of higher education with a high concentration on teacher training courses.

Sir Martin said the decision by 91 per cent of all institutions to charge the maximum - far higher than the 80 per cent predicted by the Government - meant that top-up fees in themselves had not led to a market place in higher education.

"The real market place is over the level of bursaries and scholarships that are being offered," he added. He admitted that Offa had told some universities that their rivals were offering a wider range of bursaries - which had then led to them increasing their offer. Significantly, the universities are under no obligation to offer students from the European Union the same levels of bursaries. None of the universities submitting agreements to Offa has indicated it would make offers to those from the EU - prompting fears that universities may opt to increase admissions from the EU to avoid paying bursaries.

But today's agreements were criticised by college lecturers' leaders. Paul Mackney, of Nathfe - the University and College Lecturers' Union, said yesterday: "An institution-by-institution bursary system is inherently unfair and will disadvantage the universities doing most to widen access to poorer students.

"Oxford University will not take thousands of students from poor backgrounds, it can therefore offer help to the few it takes.''

He added: "Those universities which enrol thousands of poorer students will offer limited support or risk starving themselves of resources."

More state pupils for Cambridge

Cambridge University has promised to increase the number of students it admits from state schools.

While Oxford's agreement with Offa - the university fair access watchdog - merely talks of increasing applications from the state sector, Cambridge has set itself the target of increasing the percentage of admissions from 57.6 per cent to between 60 and 63 per cent within five years. It also says it wants to raise the proportion of students from "low participation neighbourhoods" from 7 per cent to 8-9 per cent over the same period.

"Our principal milestone is to increase participation of our UK undergraduate intake from the state sector," the agreement states.

While the university insists it will reach the target "without compromising entry standards", the agreement will send a shiver through independent schools - who believe such targets may discriminate against some of their candidates. On bursaries, Cambridge will offer every student who qualifies for full grant aid of £2,700 a year, an extra bursary worth £3,000. The extra money will be available to any student whose family earns less than £16,000 a year.

In addition, mature students, who may face the dilemma of giving up paid employment to study, will be eligible for bursaries of up to £5,000 - bringing their maximum income to just over £23,000 for a three-year course.

The university acknowledges that its admissions targets are demanding as the student population at Cambridge is unlikely to increase significantly over the next five years.

Greenwich undercuts capital rivals

Greenwich University is alone in London in refusing to charge the maximum £3,000-a-year top-up fee.

The south London university is fixing a fee of £2,500-a-year for its honours degree courses - except for a four-year pharmacy course it runs in conjunction with the University of Kent, which will attract the maximum fee.

Greenwich's vice-chancellor, Baroness Blackstone of Stoke Newington, who was minister for higher education in Tony Blair's first administration, says it agreed the figure in consultation with students over what level of fees they could afford.

"The university is confident that this package of a lower fee combined with bursaries and scholarships will appeal to potential applicants," said Lady Blackstone.

"Our students have told us that it will and we took their views into account when reaching this decision."

Sir Martin Harris, director of the Office for Fair Access, said he would be "surprised" if universities that set a lower figure attracted fewer students.

"I'm pleased that some universities have chosen to go down this road because I think there will now be different working experiences for us to look at," he said.

Higher education financial experts said that while universities that charged a lower fee might not attract more students from low-income families because of the financial help available, they may attractstudents whose families earn just above the £33,000 a year threshold which triggers cash aid.