Tuition top rate for one third of universities

By Phil Scullion

Over a third of English universities will charge the top tuition fee rate of £9,000 on all courses after their proposals to widen access were approved.

Any institution wishing to charge over £6,000 was required to adopt an "access agreement" which had to be approved by the Office for Fair Access (Offa).

The watchdog said that "fewer than half" of all students would eventually pay the top fee due to discounts for poorer students known as "fee waivers".

However Liam Burns, president of the National Union of Students called fee waivers "cynical" and a "cover up" of the government's failure to support less wealthy students.

He said: "Vince Cable had stated that fees over £6,000 would only be levied in exceptional circumstances but his solemn promise has quite clearly now been left in tatters."

Sir Graeme Davies, director of Offa, said a "rigorous and robust" process had been applied to negotiating the access agreements with universities.

He added that 52 of the 114 institutions had not initially submitted challenging enough plans but these had been resubmitted and now hit the conditions required by the watchdog.

Access agreements did not encompass just fee waivers, but also bursaries, summer schools and trips to disadvantaged areas to persuade pupils to apply.

Simon Hughes, Liberal Democrat deputy leader, said: "I welcome the almost £200m of extra money which universities will be investing in measures to improve access to higher education next year.

"From now on, all universities will be assessed on their performance in improving access every year. In future universities which do not deliver greater access must face penalties."

However Gareth Thomas, Labour's shadow universities minister, pointed to the fact no institutions had been told to lower their fees by Offa.

He said: "Not one access agreement has been rejected, despite David Cameron and Nick Clegg's grand claims."

The issue of university tuition fees has proved a divisive one for the Liberal Democrat party, who were forced to renege on a pre-election pledge to oppose any rise in fees.