Education & Family

Students warn of cut-price places 'flea market'

Graduates
Image caption Pricing is coming under scrutiny in the shift to a market-based university system

Student leaders have warned that cut-price fees to fill empty university places could turn the admissions process into a "flea market".

It follows reports Universities Minister David Willetts had suggested some universities could reduce tuition fees in clearing.

The Office for Fair Access has warned against "unfair" late discounts.

The Department of Business, Innovation and Skills says any discount would have to be given to all students.

The department said if any last-minute tuition fee reduction were offered in clearing, it would also have to be retrospectively applied to all students with a place on the same course, to avoid a financial incentive to delay applications.

The forthcoming White Paper on higher education would "include proposals to prevent unfair discounting", the department added.

'Confusing messages'

Mr Willetts had told the Independent newspaper some universities could reduce tuition fees to attract students during clearing, when students who have missed out on A-level grades or who are making late applications are matched up with the vacancies remaining on degree courses.

Most universities in England want to charge the maximum £9,000 for some or all courses, but the minister's comments suggest this could be revised down if there is a lack of demand for places.

The NUS president, Aaron Porter, said: "Ministers are at risk of turning the university application process into a flea market, exposing students and their families to unnecessary panic and grotesque unfairness.

"Efforts to force an unworkable market on higher education are already backfiring."

Pam Tatlow, chief executive of the Million+ group of new universities, said: "Ministers are giving out confusing messages that fees may change at clearing.

"Of course adjusting prices is common in a market, but universities will be very cautious about adopting this approach which is counter to the guidance issued by the the Office of Fair Access [Offa]."

Offa, the watchdog for fair access to university, has told universities "to bear in mind that discounting late in the application cycle is unfair to applicants who chose not to apply to you on the basis of the fee and support package you advertised earlier".

It added late discounts could work against poorer applicants, who would be more likely to wait for a price cut, with the risk of limited choices and of missing out altogether.

A Department for Business, Innovation and Skills spokesman said: "The government agrees with Offa that late discounting, including during clearing, must not lead to unfairness.

"As the Offa guidance makes clear, any late fee discounts or improved financial support would have to be offered to all eligible applicants, including those who already have an offer, so that the system is fair."

Shadow universities minister, Gareth Thomas, said: "This is another back of an envelope policy from David Willetts - students should be able to choose the course which is right for them, not the one that comes at the right price. You can't treat university like a lastminute.com holiday."

The White Paper setting out how this market-based university system will operate is expected next month.

Earlier this week Mr Willetts was embroiled in a row about whether the creation of extra university places, not publicly-funded, could provide a backdoor for wealthy students.

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