The Government yesterday resisted calls to extend exemption from university fees beyond students planning voluntary work, despite mounting pressure from opposition parties, students, vice-chancellors and headteachers.
Though delaying any formal announcement until Thursday, when A-level results are published, or even Friday, it gave clear signals that calls for a fee waiver for all students with a deferred university place for 1998 would be rejected.
Ministers were digging in their heels despite the threat of a legal challenge and predictions by admissions officials that the limited exemption would benefit only around 2,000 students out of 19,000 with deferred places.
Vice chancellors meeting ministers yesterday stressed the need for terms which allowed all students to "feel happy about continuing their gap year". And the Conservative education spokesman, David Willetts, called for an "urgent and authoritative statement", accusing the Government of causing more stress for A-level students by delaying an announcement.
Under plans to be announced in detail later this week, students with a firm offer of a place for 1998 who can prove they intend to do at least three months' voluntary work with a recognised organisation during their gap year will be exempted from fees.
All other students starting university next year and after will be liable for means-tested tuition fees of up to pounds 1,000 per year of study, payable after graduation, plus thousands more in living costs following the abolition of maintenance grants.
The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, UCAS, has warned that 40,000-90,000 more students than in previous years could make late applications this summer to take advantage of the last year of free higher education. It fears its clearing system, which matches candidates to unfilled places, could be swamped by the rush.
The National Union of Students yesterday confirmed it would back any legal test case challenging the Government's decision. Lawyers are divided over the likely outcome, but education legal specialist, Jack Rabinowicz, said students would have grounds for a judicial review.
David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said it was "manifestly wrong" to limit the fees concession to those planning charity work, and insisted students fulfilling a university offer for a deferred place had met their side of a contract.
However, sources at the Department for Education and Employment insisted that while students planning voluntary work deserved assistance for helping society, others could earn money towards fees.
And the Treasury would argue strongly that a line had to be drawn, and that exempting more students would invalidate the decision to levy fees in the first place.
Barry Jackson, director of corporate affairs at the Committee of Vice- Chancellors and Principals, said university leaders wanted students already committed to a gap year to feel content to continue with their plans. They did not want to see students left "in limbo" while the Government prepared to clarify its exemption deal, which emerged via press leaks.Reuse content