The University of Central England in Birmingham, formerly Birmingham Polytechnic, is acting after a spate of calls this month from anguished students. Many of them are halfway through job-related courses but have been made redundant during the summer, losing not only income but also sponsorship from their employers. Others are students intending to embark on courses this term, who have also suddenly lost sponsorship from firms, some totalling thousands of pounds.
Dr Peter Knight, university vice-chancellor, said: 'We do not know how many students are affected, but we think it could cost us something in the region of pounds 250,000.
'These are people on courses, expecting their employer to pay, but the company has gone under. Or they are new students and the same thing has happened.'
The students would have to fulfil one of two criteria to get their fees waived. Either they would have to be on income support and 'on their uppers', Dr Knight said. Or, and this applies to the largest group, they would be in receipt of unemployment benefit. There are about 7,500 part-time students at the university.
'The problem with part-time students is that everything tends to be a bit last-minute,' Dr Knight said. 'This month people either wrote to me, or contacted tutors, to say they were out of work and could not afford to pay for their courses. It seems daft for someone halfway through a course suddenly to have to withdraw. A feature of our university is that we have a highly vocational portfolio of courses. Many of our part-time students . . . tend to be in employment, with their fees paid by their employer. So our students are more vulnerable than others.'
Dr Knight said the university did not need to get the scheme sanctioned by either its funding council or the Department for Education. 'We have the power to set fees, and we can set a fee of zero.' The university intends the scheme to extend beyond this year. 'You cannot take a student just for a year and then kick them out,' Dr Knight said.
The scheme was possible because of 'prudent management' but it would have to be carefully monitored.
The National Union of Students yesterday welcomed the move. A spokeswoman said: 'This is a very positive move and I hope other universities and colleges follow this lead. Part-time students are usually at the bottom of the heap, and because they have no grant-aid, often suffer the most hardship.
'It is marvellous that a university is finally taking their welfare into account. If they suddenly lose their jobs it can be back-breaking and they lose all chance of bettering themselves and getting another job. This is a very far-sighted plan by this university and we are very excited about it.'