With tuition fees rising to pound;9,000 a year in the majority of universities from next month, FE colleges have prided themselves on providing an affordable alternative for teenagers who want to enter higher education.
But figures released last week reveal that three colleges - including two of the country's largest FE providers - have been given permission to charge the maximum fee allowed from 2013, meaning that students studying some subjects could be paying as much as their peers who attend Oxford, Cambridge and the Russell Group universities.
Leeds City College and the Manchester College have joined Plymouth College of Art in receiving permission from the Office for Fair Access (Offa) to charge fees of pound;9,000, although Manchester insists it will not charge more than pound;8,400. Average fees at Leeds and Manchester, excluding waivers and student support packages, will be pound;7,646 and pound;5,850 respectively.
They are among seven colleges that will raise their fees for 2013-14, according to Offa, with Leeds' average fee increasing by more than pound;1,400.
"The government's suggestion that fees much above pound;6,000 would be the exception rather than the rule was never likely to hold true," said Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union. "It was also too simplistic to expect FE colleges to simply provide a cheap alternative. As institutions attempt to grapple with funding cuts and the new fee regime, it is students who are being hit the hardest by the higher charges."
Leeds City College's access agreement revealed that it will charge the "maximum permitted tuition fee for publicly funded, full-time home and (European Union) undergraduate and foundation degree students" at Leeds College of Music, a specialist institution that became part of the general FE college a year ago.
"The fee may increase annually in line with increases applied by the government to the maximum permitted fee," the agreement continued.
"The college is charging pound;6,200 for its degrees as agreed with Offa," a spokeswoman for Leeds City College said. "Leeds College of Music is a wholly owned subsidiary organisation of Leeds City College, but it is also a conservatoire offering highly specialised degree programmes and is therefore charging pound;9,000 in line with other conservatoires in the UK."
While the Manchester College's average tuition fee will be one of the lowest among FE colleges, it has been given permission to charge up to pound;9,000 for new students studying for BA (Hons) degrees at its Arden School of Theatre.
Phil Nickisson, the college's HE director, told TES that it would actually charge annual fees of no more than pound;8,400 on two specialist courses, despite permission for pound;9,000.
"This increase was introduced to enable all students to participate fully in their chosen course, ensuring no additional costs throughout the course for anything from equipment to activities," he said. "The college is committed to widening participation and we continue to offer our students excellent value for money."
Six colleges are planning to lower their HE tuition fees for 2013-14. The biggest drop will be at Somerset College of Arts and Technology, where the average fee will fall from pound;7,130 to pound;6,739.
FE colleges' charges will still be considerably lower than those of universities. The average tuition fee across all institutions will increase by almost pound;100 to pound;8,507, Offa revealed. At FE colleges, the average will stand at pound;6,989, while the lowest fee for a full-time student permitted by Offa was pound;4,000 at Bradford College.
Offa's director, Sir Martin Harris, said some institutions could be forced to "revisit the relatively high fees that they currently feel able to charge" as a result of competition with rival providers to attract students.
Joy Mercer, director of policy at the Association of Colleges, said that 262 colleges delivered HE programmes, the majority of which would charge below the threshold requiring access agreements, currently pound;6,000 a year.
"Some HE programmes provided by our members are more costly to deliver - for example, specialist music and theatre courses . and this will be reflected in the fees charged," she said. "We are confident, as are our members, that any rise in these fees reflects the excellent quality of provision."
pound;9,000 - Maximum annual tuition fee permitted.
pound;8,507 - Average tuition fee for all universities and colleges in 2013- 14.
pound;6,989 - Average tuition fee for FE colleges.
pound;4,000 - Lowest fee charged by an FE college.
Original headline: Three colleges will be able to charge the same fees as Oxbridge