Students who start degrees at Welsh institutions in 2006 may have to pay top-up fees from 2007, university heads fear, Tony Tysome writes.
Vice-chancellors claim that the Welsh Assembly has backed out of a commitment to protect the 2006 cohort of undergraduates in Wales from top-up fees for the duration of their courses.
The news reached vice-chancellors through a letter from the assembly. It states that no decision has been taken on whether the 2006 cohort should be exempt for the duration of their courses.
An assembly spokeswoman said this week that this was not a change of policy, since the only commitment made so far was not to introduce top-up fees for the lifetime of this assembly.
But James Lusty, chairman of Higher Education Wales and vice-chancellor of the University of Wales, Newport, said: "Until now, there has been a firm commitment that the cohort would be protected. We were surprised and disappointed to learn that that has been withdrawn."
James Knight, president of NUS Wales, described the assembly's position as "abhorrent".
The row follows publication of a report from the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales, which shows the financial position of Welsh institutions has weakened since 2002-03.
A summary of Welsh institutions' 2004 mid-year financial returns published in the report indicates that the sector's operating surplus is expected to drop to £4.26 million - £14.31 million lower than the surplus in 2002-03.
Professor Lusty said: "We are operating on very tight margins. While we lag behind England and Scotland, our budgets will require careful management."