Tuition fees could rise by 40 per cent for students studying higher education access and professional courses in further education colleges under proposals from the Learning and Skills Council.
If implemented, the plans could raise the cost of a university access course from £600 to £840 a year for students who largely receive no financial help towards study costs.
The proposals affect those aged 19 or older who already hold qualifications higher than level two (broadly equivalent to five or more GCSEs at grades A to C) and who are not entitled to benefits. Under the plans, they will be expected to contribute 35 per cent of the cost of their course by 2006, instead of the current 25 per cent.
The LSC, which outlines its proposals in a consultation paper, says the changes are needed to recoup the loss of about £100 million in fee income every year. The paper says that the shortfall is due to colleges failing to collect some or all of the fees they are entitled to charge students.
"The overall position represents a substantial loss of potential income for the further education sector and increases pressure on resource levels," the paper says.
The LSC plans to set colleges new income targets that can be met by any means but are expected to result in students and sponsoring employers paying higher fees.
Rob Wye, director of the LSC, said the council was open to negotiation over targets. But he said: "It will be true for some colleges that the only way they can reach the targets is by putting fees up."
Julian Gravatt, director of funding and development for the Association of Colleges, said: "Our position is that in the long-term it is desirable that students and employers pay more, but there is a short-term concern about how this is implemented."