Colleges pressured to set fees at pound;9k
Colleges are coming under pressure to charge the maximum pound;9,000 for HE fees by some universities despite ministers' warnings that anti- competitive behaviour is "unacceptable".
Even where colleges believe they can maintain the quality of their programmes at a lower price, some report that the universities they rely on for accreditation are pushing for higher fees.
The move challenges efforts by ministers to encourage alternative models of provision which could reduce the costs for students.
Ian Clinton, principal of Blackburn College, the second largest HE-in-FE provider with pound;10 million of funding last year, said he planned to cut ties with the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) over its fee requirements.
He said: "They told us that we needed to charge the same as them or they wouldn't be able to work with us.
Mr Clinton's college receives funding directly from the Higher Education Funding Council for England, so he is free to shop around for accreditation at another institution. Much of the college's HE provision is already validated by the nearby University of Lancaster, which has not sought to influence the fee level, he said.
Blackburn has set fees at pound;7,000, making it among the 17 out of 123 directly funded colleges to have submitted proposals to the Office For Fair Access to charge more than pound;6,000.
Mr Clinton said he did not believe lower fees were sustainable, but added that part of the extra money levied would go towards bursaries.
Dr Graham Baldwin, deputy vice-chancellor (academic) at UCLan, said that the university had told its 23 college partners that it preferred them to charge the maximum fee for full-time undergraduate courses, but denied its aim was to prevent price competition.
"The university has expressed a preference for our partners to charge the same fee as ourselves for a UCLan, full-time undergraduate course (pound;9,000) because we strongly believe that the quality of the student learning experience and students' employment opportunities are just as good as those studying the same course on UCLan's Preston campus," he said.
However, he said that foundation degree courses, which formed the majority of the provision it accredited in colleges, could be charged at a lower rate.
The university was also consulting widely with its partner colleges ahead of the introduction of the new fee regime in 2012, he said.
HE minister David Willetts has already told colleges that the forthcoming white paper will protect them against anti-competitive practices, including threats to reduce or withdraw student numbers from colleges with franchised HE provision or to prevent lower fees.
He said: "Such deliberately anti-competitive behaviour is unacceptable. More than that, if FE colleges can offer good-quality degrees at a more competitive price than a validating university does at its home campus, then I'm all in favour. Universities should not impede cost-effective provision of HE by colleges.
"It will be a backwards step if FE colleges are squeezed out of the market by universities seeking to claw back franchised places. In the white paper, we will be looking at how we can free FE colleges from these risks."
Original headline: Universities pressure colleges to set fees at pound;9k