Universities to learn if they can charge maximum fees

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The Independent Online

Universities will finally learn tomorrow whether they are allowed to charge students the maximum £9,000-a-year tuition fee from September 2012.

Most institutions are expected to be given the go-ahead to charge students the top fee on at least some courses when the Office for Fair Access (OFFA), the university admissions watchdog, announces its verdict.

Universities that wanted to charge students more than £6,000 a year had to seek an access agreement with the regulator, spelling out their plans to encourage disadvantaged young people to seek places. Two-thirds of English universities have applied to OFFA to charge the maximum.

Sir Martin Harris, head of OFFA until last month, has always said that provided a university has a satisfac- tory access agreement, his body has no alternative but to approve their right to levy the maximum fee.

David Willetts, the Universities Secretary, said in his White Paper on higher education last month that he would like to give OFFA a wider range of powers over fees. He wants the regulator to be able to suggest a reduction in the fee level rather than deploying the "nuclear option" of refusing an application or fining the university.

There have been reports of OFFA telling some universities that their access agreements need revising before they can be approved.

However, the crunch is likely to come the year after the introduction of the new fees structure, when it can be seen whether universities are living up to the promises made in their access agreements.