Mature students taking second degrees through The Open University could be priced out of the market, it was warned this week, after the distance-learning specialist announced plans to charge a £5,000 tuition fee for new starters from 2012-13.
Although the majority of the OU's undergraduates will be able to draw on the government's new proposals for student loans, students who already have a degree will not be eligible. Consequently, they will have to fund the fee hike themselves. The price of some OU degrees will almost quadruple.
Currently, in England, there are 37,500 OU undergraduates who are studying for an equivalent or lower-level qualification (ELQ) to one they already hold. They make up 24.2 per cent of the total OU undergraduate population for 2010-11.
Existing ELQ students will avoid paying the higher fees, provided they continue to study each year and complete their qualification by 2017.
However, anyone starting from 2012 will face the fee hike, although the OU emphasised that they would be able to draw on the institution's programme of financial support.
Marianne Cantieri, president of the OU Students Association, said the move was a blow for mature students looking to re-skill. She placed the blame firmly on the government for continuing with its policy to focus funding on first-time undergraduates.
"We have no doubt that we shall see a drop in the number of mature students in future and feel that this is a very sad day for the ideal of lifelong learning," she said.
Meanwhile, further education colleges are poised to work with the OU to snap up many of the 20,000 student places that will be stripped from other English universities and offered in a price-based auction.
Martin Bean, the OU's vice-chancellor, said he was ready to "open up conversations" about validating more degree programmes at further education colleges, many of which are keen to seek alternatives to what they see as increasingly costly partnerships with other universities.
Further education colleges, most of which are charging fees of less than £6,000 in 2012-13, are expected to play a key role in the government's strategy to drive down fees.
In 2012-13, a total of 20,000 student places will be taken from the group of universities charging more than £6,000 and offered to institutions with average fees of less than £7,500.
Mr Bean said the OU, which currently validates courses at six further education colleges in England involving about 4,000 students, was prepared to look at the potential opportunities for expanding collaboration.
He said that there was "clearly demand in the marketplace for alternative providers", although he cautioned that this was the result of a greater number of students seeking part-time and other flexible arrangements, rather than lower prices.
"Just by simply making provision available at a lower cost doesn't automatically mean there is demand," Mr Bean said.
Nick Davy, higher education policy manager at the Association of Colleges, said its members had already been in discussion with the OU about trying to develop partnerships, as the further education sector was "quite worried" about other universities charging them more for validation and registration.