Tuition fees reach £8,678.36 average among universities posting price lists

• Almost 75% of universities have opted for maximum fees
• David Willetts says measures will empower students
• New NUS president concedes defeat in battle to oppose policy

Almost three-quarters of universities that have announced their tuition fee plans have opted to charge the maximum £9,000 for at least some of their degree courses from 2012.

English universities hoping to charge more than £6,000 a year have until Tuesday to submit their plans to the government's access watchdog, the Office for Fair Access (Offa). The average fee of those that have made their plans public currently stands at £8,678.36.

This has emerged as the universities minister, David Willetts, argued that the coalition's decision to slash the teaching grant will remove the "privileged inner circle" of institutions backed by direct state funding and open up higher education to competition.

Willetts said the shift from the teaching grant to tuition fees will empower students as well as enabling private universities to enter the higher education market on a level footing.

In an article for the Guardian's Comment is free site, Willetts writes: "This … shift, by removing the privileged inner circle that gets teaching grant and instead allocating money via fees and loans, opens up HE to a wider range of providers doing things differently.

" And universities will get their money by focusing on the teaching experience for students, which has been their greatest weakness."

The teaching grant will be cut from £4.6bn to £2bn by 2014. Newer universities say they are worst affected by the reduction in funding as they are less able to offset their teaching losses with research income. Many have cited the loss of teaching income in their rationale for charging the maximum £9,000 fee.

Willetts argued that behind the "sticker price", many students will be charged much less than the maximum. "If you look behind the headlines, the reality is that lots of students will not face fees anything close to £9,000 a year – including at the most prestigious universities."

The minister gives the example of Warwick's £9,000 fee, which is reduced by half with the fee waiver or bursary offered by the institution to students whose families have incomes below £25,000.

Willetts says the "fixation" with the maximum figure conceals the diversity within universities and across the sector, citing Derby's decision to cap prices at £7,995, and Portsmouth and Leeds Met at £8,500.

The government has said fees of more than £6,000 will be allowed only in "exceptional circumstances". Willetts initially predicted that the average fee would be £7,500. He later revised that to £7,500-8,000.

A total of 67 universities or university colleges have declared their tuition fees, with at least 63 yet to do so. Of the 67, 46 said they wanted to charge £9,000 for all their courses. They range from Oxbridge to the University of East London, which came second from bottom in the Guardian's latest university league table.

Several universities are charging a range of fees. These include London Metropolitan, where charges range from £4,500 to £9,000, and Coventry (£4,600-£9,000). A fee of £9,000 for at least one of their courses will be imposed by 49 of the 67 universities.

Every university in the Russell group, which represents large, research-intensive universities, intends to charge £9,000, bar two that have not yet announced their fee levels: Bristol and the London School of Economics.

Three universities in the 1994 group, which represents small, research-intensive universities, have yet to announce how much they want to charge – York, the University of East Anglia and Goldsmiths. But every other member of the group wants to charge £9,000.

Birkbeck College, University of London, specialises in part-time courses and will charge £4,500-6,750.

Many of the newest universities have not yet announced their proposed fees. However, Coventry is one of several institutions to offer a range of fees. It will charge £4,500 for part-time degrees that are taught in the workplace, while its business studies and English degrees will cost £7,500. Degrees that require studio space or field trips, such as fine art, music and geography, will cost £7,900, while courses that require hi-tech equipment, such as media production, will cost £8,300. The university's most specialist courses, such as fashion, will cost £9,000.

The latest universities to declare their fees include Bradford, which plans to charge £9,000, and Northumbria, which is proposing £8,500.

Willetts' defence of the fees strategy comes as the newly elected president of the NUS, Liam Burns, conceded that the battle over tuition fees has – for now – been lost. Also writing for Cif, Burns said "the debate on how to fund education is sadly largely irrelevant until the wholesale removal of public funding is reversed".

Instead, the "first challenge" for the NUS will be to fight the prospect of a cut in student places. Business secretary Vince Cable warned recently that institutions regarded by ministers as overpriced could have places withdrawn.

Burns, who takes over from current president Aaron Porter in July, expressed regret over what he described as "significant mistakes" in the campaign against fees. The student movement split after the NUS leadership took several days to endorse direct action, such as occupations of university premises.

Burns writes that the NUS "made the wrong call"."When students peacefully occupied their university buildings, NUS was not clear enough how and if we could support that action; when protests were being organised outside the structures of NUS itself, a certain arrogance implied that the national union had a monopoly over any campaigning relating to education funding; and when the police were baton charging and kettling our members, NUS was too slow to criticise those tactics publicly," he writes.

Burns describes the new fees system as being in "complete chaos" as universities flock towards the maximum fee.

Offa will announce which universities' plans it has approved by 11 July.


Jessica Shepherd and Jeevan Vasagar

The GuardianTramp

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