Most college heads remain undecided about top-up fees, a conference will hear his week, amid concerns that the further education sector may lose out when fees are introduced for higher education courses from 2006, writes Tony Tysome.
Colleges fear that if they pitch fees at the wrong level, they will lose students to higher education institutions or other colleges in their area.
Worries over falling foul of competition laws meanwhile are preventing them discussing fees with partner universities for foundation degrees.
Top-up fees are expected to be the main topic of discussion during the Association of Colleges annual conference in Birmingham next week. College principals will ask Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, who will address the conference on Tuesday, to explain how higher education in further education will be protected from potentially damaging shifts in the market when differential fees are introduced.
Susan Hayday, who heads the AoC's higher education working group, said colleges would have to make decisions soon about fee levels for 2006. "The problem is that there is no real clarity about what level of fee the market will bear, or how differential fees will be perceived," she said.
"Most colleges feel they are in a high-risk situation, trying to decide whether to set fees so they are in line with those set by universities, or set them lower and risk their courses being perceived as of lower quality."
Where colleges receive their higher education funding indirectly, the decision will be in the hands of their higher education partner. But this could also cause problems, Ms Hayday warned.
"If they are recruiting in an area of deprivation and they are expected to set fees at the same level as universities, it could seriously affect demand for places and jeopardise the amount of higher education available locally," she said.
- The conference will also see the launch of a new AoC charter for colleges' international activities. Colleges that sign it will commit themselves to maintaining high standards and an ethical recruitment code.
Jo Clough, AoC international officer, said that the charter was designed to help students choose courses at legitimate further education institutions and should also reduce the risk of places being offered to bogus students.
She said: "It is all about helping international students make informed choices. It should cut out confusion between a genuine further education college and one that is just an office above a shop in London's Oxford Street."