Candidates face a rise of up to five times inflation, reports Dorothy Lepkowska. Plans by two of the three exam boards offering vocational qualifications to raise examination fees by up to a quarter have been described as "outrageous".
The Business and Technology Education Council is to increase the fees for its intermediate and advanced level General National Vocational Qualifications examinations from the next academic year, as well as introducing a 4 per cent rise in Higher National Certificate and Diploma.
The rises mean the fee for the intermediate level test will go up by 23 per cent to Pounds 65 and the fee for the advanced level to Pounds 83 - a rise of 24 per cent.
Fees for City and Guilds are to rise from Pounds 44 to Pounds 50 at foundation level, from Pounds 49 to Pounds 60 at intermediate level and from Pounds 64 to Pounds 80 at advanced level.
The Royal Society of Arts, which also offers GNVQs, said a cut in registration fees would cancel out a small rise in examination charges.
Roger Ward, chief executive of the Colleges' Employers' Forum, said: "A fee increase at five times the rate of inflation is not good for students, colleges, or the image of the sector in these cost-cutting times." He has requested an urgent meeting with Christina Townsend, chief executive of BTEC, over the rises which he says will cause problems for colleges who have fulfilled their obligations by completing budgets for the next financial year. He suggests a freeze at the old rate, followed by consultation over a timetabling of increases.
Ruth Silver, principal of Lewisham College in London, described the increase in fees as "outrageous" and has written to Christina Townsend on the issue. She said the rise in costs will bring the college's total exam payments to BTEC to Pounds 100,0000 - a rise of 17 per cent. "Our budget has already been set and we have had no notice that these increases are going to take place." She added that students could not be expected to bear the brunt of the increases.
At Manchester College of Art and Technology, however, some students might have to pay up to a quarter of the new charges depending on their means, a spokeswoman said. She added: "Students are being squeezed from all sides with discretionary grants disappearing."
Schools are also likely to be dismayed by the rises. Russell Clarke, assistant general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said the rises had come at a very bad time when school budgets were being squeezed. Exam fees were a major item of school expenditure.
The awarding bodies claim the rises are necessary after "standstill" budgets and to reclaim development costs. They say GNVQs are being subsidised by other users of the boards' services. A spokesman for BTEC said the rises came after three years without an increase. He added: "We are making a loss of around Pounds 19 per student over what we take in registration fees. There are also additional costs associated with development of the examinations, together with research, marking and monitoring what is going on in colleges. We are constantly reviewing the tests to make sure we are getting them right and this is where the expense comes in."
A spokeswoman for City and Guilds said: "The awarding bodies have shouldered very large development costs incurred in establishing GNVQ. The fees that we charged during the first two years that GNVQs were available fall far short of recovering the expenditure and we have reluctantly concluded that we can no longer expect that other users of City and Guilds services should continue to subsidise GNVQ at the same level."