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Editor's comment

Further education colleges face a real conundrum over the pound;3,000 higher education top-up fees. If they charge, they risk turning off able students from poor homes. If they do not, they could be accused of offering sub-standard degrees on the cheap.

As Peter Hymans, director of HE at Bradford college, says: "Our students are not choosing between us and a university, but between having higher education or not having it" (see page 5).

Therefore, the college will not charge them.

But if colleges complain about the lack of cash for adult non-vocational education - given the Government's drive for more skills - how can they divert limited resources to degree students?

Also, it will be hard to argue with whichever party is in power post-May 5 that you want more cash for adults while not charging degree students. Only the Lib Dems would scrap top-up fees, but it is unclear how they would fund wider adult education.

Colleges are right to be concerned over the deterrent effect of a pound;9,000 graduation debt for impoverished students. However, there is much evidence that a degree confers higher wage-earning potential - Labour's argument for top-up fees in the first place.

Given that the HE Act on tuition fees was passed and fee-raising powers are in place, the 200 FE colleges offering HE must consider how what they offer compares with universities. There is an argument that tuition fees can be used to redistribute wealth. They can be used flexibly to provide bursaries and grants for the less well-off. Given the lack of any other mechanism for such student support, colleges must ask whether they are selling themselves and the wider student population short by not introducing them.

The overwhelming majority of colleges have yet to decide whether to introduce top-up fees. For many, the decision depends on whether the partner university franchising or accrediting the degrees insists on charging colleges the full amount. Prestigious universities will not want to be associated with cheap, substandard degrees.

Colleges could pull out of the degree market. But, as Peter Hymans points out, that would leave many students with nothing.

Colleges want parity of funding with schools, they want more support to widen participation and they want free or reasonably-priced adult education. Free or even low-cost HE could prove a plea too far.

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