Cut-price degrees will be on offer next year from more than three quarters of "mixed economy" further and higher education colleges, a Times Higher survey has found.
Colleges running honours degree and foundation degree courses have made full use of top-up fee variability, with a wide range of charges from no fee to the maximum £3,000 a year. Nearly half will charge nothing.
Bursaries ranging from £300 a year to a full annual fee waiver of £3,000, along with other incentives such as free use of a laptop, have been added where fees are charged.
The packages have been designed to appeal to the typical college student, who is often from the local area and from a low- income household.
But some of the more expensive deals have been heavily influenced by partner universities who validate college degrees, or by the position taken by the rest of the higher education sector where the maximum fee is the norm.
As a result, nearly a quarter of the Mixed Economy Group of colleges - whose 23 member institutions provide about 11 per cent of higher education in England - are planning to charge the full £3,000.
But they are offsetting the fee with bursary schemes expected to effectively provide most students with a discount and, in some cases, leave the poorest with nothing to pay at all.
Almost half have chosen not to introduce top-up fees next year, although many of these say they intend to review the situation for 2007, when financial or market pressures may force them to reconsider.
Between these extremes, the remaining colleges plan to charge fixed fees ranging from £2,000 to £2,700. In almost all cases, the annual charge for honours degrees and foundation degrees is the same. So far, two colleges - St Helens in Merseyside and Croydon College - have said they will charge less for a foundation degree.
Many colleges have made a late submission of their proposed fee and bursary scheme to the Office for Fair Access and have yet to receive formal approval. Offa has put back its deadline for submissions until the end of May, and it will publish approved schemes on a rolling basis.
For those who have decided against top-ups for next year, the impact of debt aversion on students who fall into the widening participation category was the overriding consideration.
Christine Davis, principal of Farnborough College, said: "Ours is very much a risk-based approach. We did not want to take a risky position in this first year of the top-up fees market."
Cliff Hall, deputy principal of Solihull College, admitted there was "an element of gamble" in deciding not to charge, since there was a danger this might be perceived as reflecting lower quality.
"That is why we will be reviewing the situation in the following year," he said.
Gill Alton, vice-principal of Grimsby Institute, said many colleges such as hers had decided to charge partly because they wanted to develop their higher education facilities but also in anticipation of higher validation charges from partner universities.
Peter Roberts, the principal of Stockport College, said there could be "clarification issues" with partner universities if colleges decided to charge significantly less for the same degree.
"It could also have a knock-on effect in terms of perceptions of quality," he said.
John Widdowson, principal of New College Durham and chairman of the Mixed Economy Group, predicted that most further and higher education colleges would charge fees from 2007. "It's about delivering the right level of provision, and for that you need the right level of resources. But it is understandable that some have decided to wait for a year to see what happens," he said.