Students could get a cut-price degree by following a university-validated course at a further education college, it was claimed this week.
Sir Martin Harris, director of the Office for Fair Access, said that only a small number of further education colleges had approached him with plans for access agreements - which are vital for institutions that hope to charge more than £1,200 a year in tuition fees.
But further education heads predict there may be a last-minute rush from colleges to submit access agreements after protracted internal deliberations over how top-up fees might affect the recruitment of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Sir Martin told The Times Higher : "It is possible that some (further education colleges) will decide not to seek access agreements for 2006, and that will mean that they will not be able to charge anything other than the standard fee for 2006. I think it is worth us musing on that.
"What we will then see is that some further education colleges will either have to make a very late decision (to seek an access agreement and charge higher tuition fees) or they may decide to give it a pass in 2006, and that will lead to interesting variations in fees.
"The same product - a degree from the University of X - will be offered at one price in the university and at another in a further education college.
There may be some interesting new opportunities for students."
By law, further education colleges that receive funding directly from the Higher Education Funding Council for England or the Teacher Training Agency must have an access agreement to charge higher fees from 2006. At present, 162 colleges fall into this category.
Michael Thrower, principal of Northbrook College and chairman of the Mixed Economy Group that represents colleges that receive direct Hefce funding, said it was harder for colleges than universities to decide what fees to charge and what bursaries to offer because such a high proportion of their students come from poor backgrounds. This made them more likely to be deterred by higher fees and to need bursaries.
"Quite frankly, I think that colleges are being very responsible and taking all these elements seriously. I am not surprised, therefore, that they are a bit behind in forwarding their access agreement plans," he said.
Susan Hayday, higher education officer for the Association of Colleges, said 90 colleges had requested copies of the AoC's guidance on submitting access agreements, suggesting that many of them were in the process of determining their fees policy.
Sir Martin anticipated that just 25 further education colleges would meet the March 18 deadline. In exceptional cases, Offa will accept submissions after this date.