Universities face tuition fee levy for poorer students
Universities in England wanting to charge fees of £9,000 per year could have to spend £900 of that income on access for poorer students.
The Office for Fair Access (Offa) has published guidelines showing how much universities should spend on fee subsidies and outreach projects.
It sets a sliding scale ranging from 15% to 30% of fee income above £6,000.
Offa's director, Sir Martin Harris, says poorer students might feel they "cannot afford to go to university".
The guidelines from Offa provide the clearest rules so far on how much universities should spend on ensuring that higher tuition fees from 2012 do not exclude poorer students.
Universities which have a "low proportion of under-represented students" are being advised to spend about 30% of fees above £6,000.
This would mean that some of the most prestigious universities charging £9,000 per year would have to spend £900 of this fee income on projects to support and recruit students from poorer backgrounds.
In universities which have a "high proportion of under-represented students", the guidelines suggest payments of 15% of anything above £6,000 - or about £450 if fees were set at £9,000.
If universities fail to deliver, Offa can refuse to sign the next annual access agreement - which would prevent a university from charging more than £6,000 per year.
The guidelines propose more spending on means-tested fee waivers and outreach work with schools, rather than on bursaries.
The government has raised the upper limit for tuition fees to £9,000 per year - and Sir Martin warns that the perception of such fee levels might put off poorer students, despite the financial support available.
"We are now entering uncharted territory and none of us can predict exactly how the new higher fees will affect student behaviour. There is a real risk that disadvantaged students in particular will start to feel they cannot afford to go to university," says Sir Martin.
Consensus not confrontation
Offa has a track record of reaching agreements with universities by consensus and conversation - and has never imposed a sanction.
These latest guidelines are also suggested levels, rather than precise thresholds - to be discussed and reviewed between institutions and Offa - and the access watchdog is not taking on the role of a price regulator.
Universities themselves will decide whether they have high or low levels of under-representation - with agreement from Offa - and there will not be any fixed national benchmarks for such levels.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg had claimed that access agreements would mean universities such as Oxford and Cambridge would have to "dramatically increase" the numbers of students drawn from poorer backgrounds.
But the 1994 Group of research universities welcomed the fact that the guidelines allow universities to set their own targets.
"By allowing universities to set their own widening participation benchmarks Offa have recognised that each university has its own priorities, and will be best placed to set the most appropriate measures," says 1994 Group executive director Paul Marshall.
The Cambridge University students' union dismissed the guidance as "toothless".
Having raised the fee level to a maximum of £9,000, the government is now wrestling with a lack of funding if too many universities set fees at this level. The funding for financial support for students is based on fees averaging £7,500 per year.
But many universities have warned that they will need at least this level to replace the funding withdrawn in government spending cuts.
Ministers dispute the claim that universities will need to charge so much.
Universities say they are already committed to widening participation - working with schools, organising visits and providing bursaries and scholarships.
The proposals for £9,000 fees from Cambridge University already include plans for a means-tested fee waiver of £3,000.
The Russell Group of leading universities says its members spend £75m a year on access projects - and that the biggest barrier for poorer applicants is that they are not getting good enough results in school.
But the Russell Group welcomes the flexible approach which allows universities "scope to set their own targets and milestones for access work".
The Million+ group of new universities highlighted the areas that remain unclear - such as access for part-time students.
Sally Hunt, head of the UCU lecturers' union, said plans for higher education were in a "shambolic state".
"Universities are in a very difficult position as they try to set fees for a new untried system. Students are in a difficult position as they start to consider where they might like to study as how much it will cost them to study won't be clear until the summer," she said.
NUS leader Aaron Porter said the access regulator should now be in a position to ensure universities with poor records on access "are not allowed to continue to make excuses or pass the buck".
Universities Minister David Willetts said: "The government has been clear that universities charging more than £6,000 who are not meeting their access benchmarks should redouble their efforts to widen participation."