Universities plan to lower fees


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The Independent Online

More than two dozen universities have submitted plans to lower their tuition fees to below £7,500 for next year, it was announced today.

The move, which comes less than three months before the university application deadline for 2012, will allow these institutions to bid for a share of 20,000 student places made available by the Government to universities that keep their fees low.

It means that thousands of students who may have already applied to start university next autumn could now find that their fees have been changed.

Plans to triple tuition fees to up to £9,000 were agreed by MPs last December. Universities planning to charge over £6,000 had to submit "access agreements" to the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) setting out how they planned to support students and ensure that those from poorer homes were not priced out.

But in a White Paper published this summer, ministers announced that English universities who charged £7,500 or lower would be able to bid for a share of 20,000 funded student places.

The decision was widely seen as an attempt by ministers to keep fees low after it began to emerge that many universities would charge at, or close to the maximum £9,000.

In light of the proposals in the White Paper, published after access agreements were submitted, some universities began considering whether to revise their fee levels to take advantage of the places on offer.

OFFA today announced that 27 universities and colleges have submitted revised access agreements which would see their average fee levels for 2012 reduced to £7,500 or lower, allowing them to bid for some of the 20,000 so-called "core and margin" places. This is likely to be done either by reducing the overall fee level, or increasing the amount of "fee waivers" available to poorer students.

It is understood that a large number of these universities and colleges had originally been planning on charging fees of between £7,500 and £8,000.

In a statement, OFFA said it will assess the revised access agreements and inform institutions if they are approved by November 30. This leaves a tight deadline as students have until January 15 to apply to university for next autumn.

Universities that have their changes approved must tell students that have already applied to them for next year that the fee package has changed.

OFFA said: "This will give applicants affected by the changes time to reconsider their course options, if they wish, by the UCAS deadline of 15 January 2012. OFFA has said it will not approve any changes for 2012-13 that reduce the overall level of financial support to students in existing agreements."

The University and College Union (UCU) warned that the fact that it will not be known until the end of the month which universities are changing their fees could leave many students in "limbo".

UCU general secretary Sally Hunt said: "Leaving universities and students to scramble around trying to save a few quid here and there is no way to run a world-class university sector. The Government's decision to move the goalposts on fee levels after it got its sums wrong exposes the mess it has made of university funding.

"Some universities may feel they have no option but to reduce their fee levels to try and compete for extra students and students will be wondering if there is now a cheaper option on the market for them."

More than a third of English universities are due to charge fees of £9,000 as standard from 2012, while almost three fifths will charge the maximum for at least one of their undergraduate courses.

The White Paper contained plans to hand 20,000 places to institutions charging £7,500 or less for courses on average - known as "core and margin" places.

Universities will also be allowed to offer unlimited places to students who achieve two As and a B or higher in their A-levels.