Two universities are considering charging top-up fees of less than £3,000 a year in a move that would shatter the national consensus that all institutions will inevitably charge the maximum.
Leeds Metropolitan and Bradford universities are putting proposals to their governing bodies later this month. Leeds Met could charge fees as low as £2,000 across the board. London Metropolitan University is also said to be considering such an option.
The Office for Fair Access said this week that it had received a draft submission from one university proposing to charge less than £3,000 across the board.
Simon Lee, vice-chancellor of Leeds Met, said: “I am in favour of the low-fee option. We would not do this without the maximum amount of publicity.”
Professor Lee said the university might build on its rugby league success - it counts seven Leeds Rhinos players among its students. “We could use the image of the Rhinos players - marketing ourselves as low charging but high impact,” Professor Lee said.
He stressed that the matter was ultimately one for the governors. He described the university’s academic board as “sympathetic”.
Professor Lee said he was determined to challenge the idea that lower fees meant lower quality.
But Michael Driscoll, chair of Campaigning for Modern Universities and vice-chancellor of Middlesex University, said this week: “I am afraid price will be equated with quality - that is how the market works.”
A study by the University of Central Lancashire supports this view. Researchers interviewed parents of teenagers who will be 18 in 2006 as well as 15-year-olds.
Malcolm McVicar, the vice-chancellor, said that even those who were seriously worried about the cost of higher education still thought that courses charging fees below £3,000 would be of inferior quality. “I was surprised by the findings. The research showed a clear relationship in the public mind between price and quality,” he said.
Consequently, his university will charge the full £3,000 fees and offer bursaries - the line taken by the vast majority of universities.
Professor Lee said: “I am happy for vice-chancellors to comment on what they see as appropriate for their university. They should not comment on others. I will not be told I am crazy to try this.”
Another problem for any university charging less than £3,000 may be whether it can afford to provide sufficient bursaries.
To date, Offa has been working on the assumption that universities will channel money from fees into bursaries. Universities may have to charge higher fees to afford levels of bursary support acceptable to Offa.
Professor Lee said that he was exploring the issue with Offa. “It would be a shame to be forced to charge more,” he said.
A tussle between Offa and Leeds Met would be politically explosive. Offa was set up to reassure Labour backbenchers who were upset about top-up fees. If it was seen to be forcing a university towards charging the maximum fees, the issue could be re-ignited.
But John Rushforth, deputy director of Offa, said: “Offa’s judgements will be based on the net impact on students of a university’s plans. There is no one model,” he said.
It is understood that Bradford, which signed a strategic alliance with Leeds Met in 2000, will put a proposal to its senate next Wednesday. The university would not comment on the low fee option.
London Metropolitan declined to comment.