Under new guidelines published by the regulator yesterday, universities and colleges have been given a further chance to switch student support from bursaries to fee waivers if the overall level of financial aid is maintained.
Lower fees will allow more institutions to bid for 20,000 places available under the ‘core and margin’ scheme, which is open to universities and colleges with an average post-waiver fee of £7,500 or less.
Those charging above this threshold will have their “core” student numbers reduced by around 9 per cent, although they will be able to recruit as many students scoring AAB or better at A level as they wish.
So far, 28 institutions have expressed an interest in lowering their average post-waiver fees for 2012 to below £7,500 after initially announcing higher charges in July. Of these eight have already reduced their fees.
Only 28 out of 132 institutions said they would charge sub-£7,500 fees when submitting their access agreements to Offa in April.
But changes to student number control rules, published in the White Paper on higher education in June, have now prompted more to consider altering their fee regimes.
Pam Tatlow, chief executive of million+, which represents post-1992 universities, said the changes were necessary because the White Paper “changed the rules of the game”.
“It is hardly surprising that some universities are now considering amending their bursary schemes and that Offa is seeking to ensure that this process is managed within a timeframe,” she said.
“However, it is unfortunate for both students and universities that the late intervention by ministers has made this necessary.”
The University and College Union said the last-minute decision to allow universities to reset their fee levels for 2012-13 “exposed the utter mess of the government’s fees policy”.
It warned that universities were struggling to keep up with the “flip-flop nature of government policy” and said courses were at risk of being axed.
“The government’s fees policy has been a messy disaster from the start”, said Sally Hunt, UCU general secretary.
The National Union of Students said tens of thousands of university applicants faced uncertainty over where to apply as a result of Offa’s decision to allow universities to renegotiate their access agreements.
With an estimated 70,000 students already having submitted their applications, many might have to reapply, it said.
Students who have already applied will be informed of any changes to their financial support package, while those applying for a course with a Ucas deadline of 15 October (namely the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, medicine, dentistry and veterinary science) will be able to choose bursary schemes offered before.
Sir Martin Harris, director for fair access, said: “In deciding how to approach revisions to 2012-13 access agreements, we have sought to minimise the impact on applicants.
“Our resulting guidance makes it clear that applicants must continue to receive the same overall level of financial support – even if the balance changes between bursaries and fee waivers.”