Universities try to avoid 'Ratner' tag by insisting on £7,500 tuition fees
Not a single university has so far come up with a proposal to charge tuition fees of less than £7,500 a year – the figure ministers hoped would be the average, and the benchmark they subsequently budgeted for.
Aaron Porter, president of the National Union of Students, said: "No one wants to be known as the 'Ratner' university – offering a cheap education."
The charges pose an awkward dilemma for ministers, who have said universities will face further cuts if the average figure for fees is higher than £7,500 – the sum the Treasury has budgeted for when determining how much to allocate to student loans.
Figures obtained by Labour show the cuts would range from an extra £50m if the average annual fee was £7,600 to £770m if all universities charged £9,000.
Gareth Thomas, Labour's Higher Education spokesman, said: "The Government repeatedly promised that fees over £6,000 would be the exception but it is increasingly clear that they're powerless to stop most universities charging closer to £9,000."
Details of the potential fee levels emerged from consultations between students and universities taking place in the vast majority of England's 130 higher education institutions. They cover a wide range, from those in the elite Russell Group of leading research institutions to the former polytechnics. About seven out of 10 universities are said to be planning to charge the maximum fees for every course. Some students claim there must have been collusion between the universities for so many to have settled on this plan, which would be illegal under fair trading legislation.
However, Mr Porter said: "I haven't seen any evidence of it and if I did I would report it to the Office of Fair Trading." But he added that he found it "difficult" to believe there had not been some conversations about fee levels.
"I find it practically very difficult to see how certain groups of institutions wouldn't find out what other institutions in the same group are charging," he said.
So far Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial College London have opted to charge the maximum £9,000 – as has Exeter, the first non-Russell Group university to do so. It is likely to be followed by many others. Oxford finalised its plans on Monday night.
Liverpool John Moores University has indicated that it will not be charging the maximum.
Ministers will not be able to look to the Office for Fair Access, the admissions watchdog, to bail them out. Sir Martin Harris, its director general, has made it clear that he cannot stop universities charging £9,000 a year if they have come up with an adequate proposal to encourage disadvantaged young people to take up places.
However, his final decision on their submissions will not be made until June, after many of this year's lower sixth forms have already begun the process of applying for university.
As a result, UCAS says it will not be able to give students details of the fees charged for their courses when they first post them online.
* Universities will be told today of how the cuts in spending will affect their budgets next year. The Higher Eduction Funding Council has already indicated that nationally they face a £300m cut in their teaching budgets and £100m lopped off research.
Oxford and Cambridge are to offer cut-price degrees for Britain's poorest young people.
Students at Oxford from families on a combined income of £16,000 a year will be given a £5,500 waiver in their first year, paying £3,500. Thereafter, fees will rise to £6,000 a year. Students whose family income is between £16,000 and £25,000 a year will pay fees of £6,000 to £8,000.
Oxford will also offer first-year students bursaries of up to £4,300 to help with accommodation so they will not be forced to work to pay living costs.
Cambridge has also offered a fees waiver of £3,500 as an alternative to its existing bursary scheme, while the poorest students will be offered a further waiver of £6,000.
Both universities intend to charge £9,000 a year to all other students.
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