SOARING EXAM fees are eating into college budgets and now cost institutions more than they spend on food.
Charges by exam boards have risen by 36 per cent in three years, double the rate of college income, and are a bigger drain on college finances than catering, computer equipment, building maintenance and improvement or energy bills.
Colleges spent a total of pound;170 million on exam fees last year, according to figures from the Learning and Skills Council. Large colleges say some of them saw bills for fees rise 25 per cent in one year to a total of Pounds 1m.
The increase in student numbers, with more people taking formal qualifications, adds to the cost because exam fees are rising faster than the funding for each student.
John Brennan, the Association of Colleges' chief executive, said: "The continuing rise in exam fee expenditure above 10 per cent a year is unsupportable and will deny other resources to students."
The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, which regulates publicly funded qualifications, is considering introducing a cap on exam fees to reduce the impact on schools and colleges, according to minutes of a meeting released last week.
Boards may also have to publish their fees a year in advance on a common format on the authority's website, so college staff will be able to compare them.
A spokeswo-man for the OCR exam board said: "As a not-for-profit company it is important that, while remaining competitive, we continue to develop new and exciting qualifications to ensure people stay in education and so achieve the best they can. We also recognise the need to constantly improve our service and support to all of our centres in order to reduce the teaching pressure and speed up the examination process."
Income from fees was being invested in new technology to link exam centres and the board, teaching support and improving the call centre, she said.
Most exam boards are non-profit companies, but in 2005 Edexcel dropped its charitable status and became a profit-making subsidiary of the publisher Pearson. Its latest accounts, dated December 2005, show after-tax profits of nearly pound;15m on a turnover of more than pound;183m.
But an Edexcel spokeswoman said its price increases were driven by investment to improve services, not a search for profits. Prices only rose by 3 per cent the year after it was bought out, although there had been a 15 per cent increase the year before. She said: "We hope centres feel they get value for money in terms of support services on-line and face to face, and via our call centres - that's how we invest money back in."
Edexcel's investment in new technology had led to the development of services such as Results Plus, she said. This provides teachers with a rapid, detailed breakdown of how students performed down to the level of individual questions and can show students how close they were to the grade boundaries.