Britain's further education colleges should charge their wealthiest higher education students £3,000 across-the-board top-up fees, college bosses said this week.
The Association of Colleges said that a flat-rate £3,000 fee would help colleges compete with universities in terms of teaching facilities, which in turn would benefit the students.
It said that fees should be charged at £3,000 for every higher education course and that the government's plans to allow institutions to vary charges up to a maximum of £3,000 from 2006 were divisive.
John Brennan, AoC chief executive, said raising fees would even out disparities between the less well-off further education sector and the wealthy higher education institutions. He said: "Sixteen to 19-year-olds from poorer families thinking about going to university - most of whom attend local colleges rather than schools - will be best served by higher fees, providing there is a bigger safety net, whereby poorer students pay no fees but wealthy students pay in full."
Dr Brennan said: "A flat-rate top-up would allow local colleges offering higher education to invest as much in their teaching facilities as bigger, more prestigious universities."
About one in five university entrants came from public schools and were "presumably used to paying fees", he said, adding that they should continue to do so.
But Dr Brennan believed the introduction of differential fees would be divisive. "We are against differential top-up fees. They will reinforce the existing two-tier system. We want all local colleges offering higher education to have equal access to funds to invest in high-quality teaching and student support."
He said £2 billion of state funding was spent on higher education students, compared with £300 million on further education students, and there was a case for addressing this.
National Union of Students president Mandy Telford said: "The NUS is disappointed that the AoC has decided not to oppose top-up fees. Allowing universities to charge higher and differential top-ups will price thousands of talented students out of university."
Lewisham: Praise and damnation for fee reforms
Ruth Silver , principal of Lewisham College, London, believes the announcement on top-up fees is very positive for her college.
"Lewisham is the 16th most needy college in the country. This safety net would catch most of my students, so it is wonderful news. If I were the principal of a richer college, I would feel differently"
Susie Tfui , 19, student union president at Lewisham College, disagrees wholeheartedly with the Association of Colleges on fees.
"It is horrible, ridiculous. It is a new way to draw money out of students. I think it is too much for students to handle at the moment and it forces them to work, which affects their performance"