The Welsh Assembly will not have the power to abolish tuition fees, unlike its Scottish counterpart, the newly installed head of post-16 education in Wales has said.
Tom Hutchinson, the Welsh cabinet member responsible for post-16 education and training, has ruled out calls by opposition members in the Labour-led assembly for an inquiry into tuition fees on the grounds that their abolition is not an option.
He said that a third of all Welsh university students will not have to pay tuition fees - the same proportion expected to be exempt as in England. He added that as well as a third of students not having to pay, another third would pay reduced fees.
He told The THES: "The government's policy is about improving the funding streams in higher education so that we can get a larger number of students into the system in Wales.
"We do know that tuition fees will contribute significantly to funding. If we did not have tuition fees I think it would be the less well off that would find themselves less able to find access to education systems."
Mr Hutchinson has held meetings with the National Union of Students in Wales to discuss possibilities for special hardship provision for students without any means.
The assembly has been allocated an Pounds 884 million increase in education and training spending. In higher education, more than Pounds 120 million extra will be available over the next three years to support an additional 8,000 student places.
Wales is also in line for its own National Council for Education and Training, which will be accountable to the assembly and, along with the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales, will be responsible for resourcing all publicly funded education and post-16 training.
Mr Hutchinson said the new council had been recommended in a report by the independent Education and Training Action Group for the Welsh Office in March.
The report said local education needs had to be delivered by partnerships among local authorities, school sixth forms, training providers, further education and higher education institutions and voluntary-sector bodies.
The new body still requires assembly assent. Once that has happened, a shadow council will start work from next April and assume full responsibility in 2001.
Mr Hutchinson said the new structure would answer the criticisms that local business was not getting enough skilled staff.
"We lag behind England and Scotland in terms of educational achievement and qualifications and that is because there has been no investment and a lack of aim. There is no strategic organisation," he said.
Ben Monks, president of NUS Wales, said the union was opening new lines of communication with the assembly. Mr Monks said that despite the setback on an inquiry into tuition fees, he was hopeful "because across all the parties in the assembly, regardless of where they stand, there is a genuine willingness to listen to the educational agenda in Wales".