A loophole in government legislation to prevent top-up fees could legally enshrine two-tier higher education where the poorest are left with minimum provision.
Consultation is under way on proposed regulations to flesh out the Teaching and Higher Education Act 1998. The act aims to prevent universities charging fees in excess of the Pounds 1,025 maximum for 1999-00 as prescribed by education secretary David Blunkett. Universities charging a higher fee could face financial penalties.
Concerns focus on a loophole built into the regulations to allow universities to charge more than Pounds 1,025 in certain cases. It allows additional charges for goods and services that are "over and above core provision". Core provision is loosely defined as what is essential to completing a degree.
Ewan Gillon, education policy researcher for the Association of University Teachers, said the regulations could allow universities to charge for non-core course modules. Wealthier students could buy modular add-ons to enhance their degrees. The logical extreme was that "core provision" would be devalued.
Mr Gillon said: "The definition of core provision is very important. An institution could offer extra language modules, for instance, without attracting a financial penalty under the act."
A spokesman for the National Union of Students said: "What exactly is core provision is central to what can then be defined as a top-up fee. Our response to the consultation will focus on hidden course charges and our opposition to differential fees."
Damian Green, shadow further and higher education minister, said: "It would be unfair if different institutions could define the regulations in different ways or if there was a gradual creep to more non-core provision."
Tony Bruce, policy head at the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, said: "The intention of these regulations is to codify and make transparent existing charges, not to allow new charges. We would not necessarily accept that core provision equals minimum provision although we would be in favour of making regulations as clear as possible."
Consultation on the categories of fees to be prescribed in the regulations ends on Wednesday.
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