Universities teaching part-time students will lose out when top-up fees are introduced, vice-chancellors have warned.
The tuition fees for part-time students are not regulated by the state, but the going rate is roughly the same per hour as it is for full-time students. Both types of tuition fee are paid upfront.
Universities are concerned that when tuition fees for full-time students are increased to £3,000 but deferred until after graduation, part-time students will be disadvantaged. Part-time fees will still have to be paid upfront, and institutions worry that part-time students will not benefit from the investment that higher fees would bring. More than 40 per cent of students study part time.
They say that the extra money announced recently for part-time students will not compensate them for the changes.
Labour MP Brian White, whose North East Milton Keynes constituency is home to the OU's headquarters, said he voted for the higher education bill on its second reading last week only after receiving an "assurance in writing that there would be new ways found to fund the OU and that there was a commitment to its future".
He said: "The question is: how is The Open University to get access to the extra money (from top-up fees) that is now going into other universities?
"It cannot easily increase fees because the part-time fee grant will not cover the increase, and the market research carried out by the OU strongly indicates that this will deter the very groups of students we wish to attract - and it would thus undermine the government's objectives.
"If the OU cannot assume that the forthcoming review of the Higher Education Funding Council for England's funding method will generate the extra cash needed for part-time students, then surely the only option is for the government to make a commitment now that there will be an increase in funding levels for part-time provision included in the current spending review round."
Alan Johnson, the higher education minister, told Mr White that institutions that recruit a high number of part-time students would benefit disproportionately from changes to the widening access and increasing retention element of the annual grants to universities to be announced next month.
Mr Johnson said: "I appreciate that The Open University will not be able to draw on (variable fees). However, that is why the review of teaching is so important.
"I cannot say what the future spending review will mean for future higher education funding, but we have made it clear that we will honour the commitment in the white paper that the government will stand by higher education in future spending reviews."
David Latchman, the master of Birkbeck, said: "If the government and Hefce are serious about the importance of part-time study, they should develop funding that appropriately supports institutions with part-time students and such students themselves."
Soapbox: Give part-timers full support