When the price is not right
Deciding whether to charge top-up fees for degrees from September 2006 will be far harder for colleges than for universities.
Charging is fraught with problems: for example can colleges charge up to Pounds 3,000 a year without putting off hard-to-reach groups? Yet if they cut fees to a minimum, will their degrees be seen as a lesser product?
Just seven of the 200 colleges that offer higher education so far have an agreement with the Office for Fair Access. These agreements specify how an institution will go about widening participation - without such an agreement, it cannot charge top-up fees.
All universities have these agreements and colleges have until March 11 to follow suit. Universities will charge top-up fees of between Pounds 2,000-a-year and the maximum pound;3,000.
But at least two colleges have decided not to "top up" and will only charge the basic fee of pound;1,200, although they are keeping their options open after the first year.
Peter Hymans, director of higher education at Doncaster college, said: "To charge the full rate could price us beyond the reach of many potential students. Our students are not choosing between us and a university, but between having higher education or not having it. A pound;9,000 debt would ruin many of our students."
Mr Hymans says the college is not trying to compete on price with other institutions, but to make higher education available to people who might otherwise not be able to afford it.
Farnborough college of technology, which has a variety of higher education courses, has taken the same decision.
Principal Christine Davis said: "We are a widening participation institution with a polytechnic flavour. There will be a lot of market turbulence, a lot of pressure on the system, and higher education will be very price-sensitive" she says. "Colleges depend on local market conditions. We are operating with students who will struggle to pay fees."
But she thinks Farnborough's decision is "high-risk" and will need to be reconsidered every year.
At the other end of the scale, four of the colleges that already have access agreements will charge the full pound;3,000: Staffordshire, Stamford, and Suffolk colleges and Leeds college of music. Sparsholt college in Hampshire will charge pound;2,400, and Warwickshire college fees will vary, up to a maximum of pound;3,000. Stockport college will charge pound;2,500.
Many are playing their cards close to their chest because, as Mr Hymans puts it, "they worry about competition."
He added: "We feel our students need to plan for 2006 entry." The Association of Colleges plans a survey, with results expected imminently.
The full picture is unlikely to be clear until the summer, but the AoC confirms many colleges will be following the example of Doncaster and Farnborough.
Others, such as Accrington and Rossendale College, are working on access agreements to submit to Offa but will give no information about the fees they propose to charge.
Barking College in east London, which has submitted a proposed agreement to Offa, does not want to put a figure on it, but Jacqui Mace, director of curriculum and quality, confirms that it will not be charging the full Pounds 3,000.
She said: "We feel we need additional funding to offer the extras that students in our region need by way of support, materials and other things.
And we don't want to be seen as a poor relation or as a cheap alternative."
Colleges' position is also made more complicated by their relationship with the universities that validate their degrees, or from which they franchise courses.
Some fear colleges offering their degrees at a lower price will make their course look like a cut-price product.
This is why the access agreement for Suffolk college points out that the Pounds 3,000 fee "reflects the high-quality University of East Anglia awards we offer".
The Government has made it clear that, when a degree is franchised, the university can, insist that the college charges the same as it does.
Universities UK makes the point that students do not choose courses on the basis of cost alone.
Its other concern is that fees for access courses to higher education are also expected to rise by 40 per cent over the next three years, from their present average of pound;600 a year for full-time students and pound;400 for part-timers.
This, many colleges believe, will be yet another disincentive for hard up students who might want to enter higher education.