Universities in England will be able to charge tuition fees of up to £9,000 per year, as the government transfers much of the cost of courses from the state to students in its response to the Browne Review.
Fees will rise to £6,000 per year – with an upper tier of £9,000 being created, if universities ensure access for poorer students. If approved by parliament, the proposals could transform English universities, creating a two-tier system in which the most competitive universities charge higher fees.
Universities Minister David Willetts said this was a "progressive" reform but Labour's Gareth Thomas said the fee hike represented a "tragedy for a whole generation of young people".
Much of the proposed fee rise, up from the current £3,290 per year, will replace funding cut from universities in last month's Spending Review. This will mean that many courses, particularly in arts and humanities, will almost entirely depend on income from students' fees.
The Universities Minister, David Willetts, confirmed that universities charging the highest fee will have to show support for widening access to students from economically poorer backgrounds. This would mean the type of outreach programmes that many universities already carry out, such as summer school and targeted scholarships. This would not mean quotas of students from poor homes, but Mr Willetts promised a "tougher regime" of sanctions if universities made insufficient efforts to attract poorer students.
Mr Willetts outlined plans in which graduates earning less than £21,000 per year would not pay any real interest on loans, rising to inflation plus 3% on a scale for graduates earning between £21,000 and £41,000 per year.
Million+ chair, Professor Les Ebdon, said: "Unless universities charge £9,000 there is a big risk that they will be worse and not better-off because of the swingeing cuts to teaching funding. The fear then must be that the outcome of such high fees will be to damage participation and social mobility."
The National Union of Students dubbed the plan "an outrage", with Aaron Porter, the president of the National Union of Students, commenting: "The government has already announced its intentions – wash their hands of responsibility for higher education by removing almost all funding for universities – and it seems they will attempt to continue their vicious attack on those that want a better education by passing all of the cost on to students and asking vice-chancellors to take none of the strain."
Sally Hunt, the general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), said: "The extra fees being forced on students and their families is money universities are being denied by government. It's a simple case of robbing the public to plug a government funding gap."
The changes in tuition fees will apply to universities in England from 2012. Scottish students studying in Scotland do not have to pay any fees. In Northern Ireland and Wales, fees are currently charged up to a maximum of £3,290.
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