...but fears big money problems if top-ups rise

The Welsh Assembly would be forced to abandon its new funding regime for higher education if a predicted rise in top-up fees in England to £5,000 a year went ahead, a leading Assembly member has warned.

Lifting the £3,000-a-year cap on fees in England could force the Welsh to follow suit to prevent institutions in Wales being disadvantaged financially. But this would "break the bank" of the Assembly if it continued to honour a commitment to, in effect, exempt Welsh students who study in Wales from paying top-ups, according to Peter Black, the Welsh Liberal Democrat Education Spokesman and chair of the Assembly's Education Committee.

Under a deal struck between the Assembly Government and opposition parties, Welsh students studying in Wales will not have to pay more than £1,200 a year when top-up fees are introduced in Wales from next year. The £1,800 difference will be paid by the Assembly, at an estimated cost of £53 million a year.

Mr Black said: "I am concerned that any increase in the upper fee limit of £3,000 would break the bank as far as the Welsh Assembly Government is concerned, and this may force them to abandon their assistance for Welsh students.

"Although we want to see tuition fees abolished, we accept that they are here for the time being and that we have to work with them. What we cannot deal with, however, is an unregulated market in education in which colleges are able to charge their students increasing entry fees to get an education."

He said applications had dropped sharply in Australia after a 25 per cent fees hike.

"We need to ensure that the situation does not get any worse, which is why the Labour Assembly Government must press its friends in Westminster to continue with the cap on top-up fees in England," Mr Black said.

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