Every English university has applied to charge at least £6,000 tuition fees, as Channel 4 News learns only eight staff will police whether they are also improving access to justify their charges.
All of the 123 universities which offer full-time undergraduate degrees have applied to charge £6,000 or more. A further 17 further education colleges also want to charge £6,000 or more.
The watchdog did not say how many institutions want to charge the maximum £9,000, but the Channel 4 News fees map shows that the vast majority, up to three quarters, are aiming to do so for at least some of their courses. Universities had until midnight on Tuesday to tell OFFA their plans – the deadline has been extended for just one because a high proportion of its courses are part-time.
Some 73 universities have made their fee declaration public, while around 50 submitted their proposals to OFFA privately.
In return for charging the higher fees, universities have had to submit access plans to OFFA, outlining how they will improve access for those from more diverse backgrounds.
The watchdog has until July to decide whether these agreements are strong enough to justify the higher fee charges. It can also impose fines of up to £500,000 if a university either charges higher fees than it outlined, or if it offers less financial help to those from lower income backgrounds.
Read more on tuition fees: will the system improve access?
However, OFFA has never turned down a university’s fee plan. It has also never imposed a fine. In the past, any discrepancies were discussed with the universities and adjusted.
It has not been given any new powers in the face of the changes to tuition fees – but it has been given a slight increase in resources.
OFFA told Channel 4 News that historically just three and a half staff have monitored universities. This will be increased to eight from the May bank holiday onwards, as they work through the access agreements.
But it said: “We are confident we have got the processes to deal with the work.”
However Gareth Thomas MP, Labour’s Shadow Universities Minister, told Channel 4 News: “Bearing in mind OFFA has no new powers and had just three staff to help its Director enforce access agreements across 130 universities, the idea that universities will now face rigorous checks before they can charge £9,000 in tuition fees is difficult to believe.
“Before the tuition fees vote David Willetts said universities would charge £9,000 only in ‘exceptional circumstances’ yet we now know this could not be further from reality, with £9,000 increasingly becoming the norm. Trebling tuition fees was unfair, unnecessary and as we now know – the policy is unsustainable too.”
The Coalition voted to increase tuition fees from £3.350 a year up to £9,000 in December in a bid to make funding for universities sustainable in the long term – and in the face of hundreds of student protests.
But at the time, Universitieis Minister David Willetts said that £9,000 would only be charged in “exceptional” circumstances – and estimated that the average would be £7,500. These new figures suggest that is unlikely to be the case.
Tonight Mr Willetts, said that OFFA was currently reviewing the access agreements to ensure they meet the “tough new conditions” from the Director for Fair Access.
“Even if the average tuition loan goes above £7,500 this would be affordable within the overall higher education funding budget and there is no evidence at this stage that there is any funding gap.” Universities Minister David Willetts
“Compared with last year, far fewer institutions have submitted applications to OFFA this time around,” he said. “Some universities have said they would like to charge £9,000 for some of their students but they have also proposed extensive fee waivers, while others have said they will charge significantly lower amounts. This means many students will pay less than the published price, and will subsequently borrow less.
“We have no plans to cut student numbers. Even if the average tuition loan goes above £7,500 this would be affordable within the overall higher education funding budget and there is no evidence at this stage that there is any funding gap.
“Because of extensive fee waivers and bursaries which universities plan to make available, we will not have a precise figure until late next year when students have enrolled and received their loans.”