By Andrew Barr
University tuition fees in England are set to rise over the next year, approaching a maximum of £9,000 annually, whilst access to higher education in Scotland remains free.
Students in England will be paying an average of just over £8,500, whilst a third of English universities will be charging the £9,000 maximum.
Top-rate fees are fast becoming the English norm rather than the exception, say Union leaders.
When fees were first set to be raised in England, the British Government had claimed the average annual fee would only be £7,500, and that fees would only reach beyond £6,000 in “exceptional circumstances”.
Today, every single English higher education institution included in a report by the Office of Fair Access (Offa) plans to charge above the Coalition’s top-end prediction of £6,000 per year.
Sally Hunt, the general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), said: "When pushing higher fees through parliament, ministers promised that fees above £6,000 would be the exception rather than rule. Today's figures confirm our more accurate prediction that fees closer to the maximum of £9,000 a year would in fact be the norm.
"There's little pleasure in being right, especially as we saw a drop in student applications of almost 10% this year following the massive hike in fees. Decisions about what and where to study at university should be made based on an individual's academic ability, not how much a course costs."
UK Government Business Secretary Vince Cable, whose Lib Dem colleagues backed tuition fees despite a pre-election pledge not to, said: "The government is determined that no-one with the ambition and ability, whatever their background, should come up against barriers to accessing higher education."
However, UCAS figures for 2012 suggest many young people have been dissuaded with nearly 48,000 fewer applicants to universities in England – a reducation of 10 per cent.
In Scotland, where higher education access is based on the ability to learn, not the ability to pay, universities have remained the most successful in the UK for attracting new applicants, followed by Wales and then Northern Ireland.
Today, Liberal Democrat MP John Leech went against his Coalition government and said charging any tuition fees was wrong.
On his blog he wrote: “I opposed Tuition Fees when Labour went back on a Manifesto pledge and introduced them at £3000; opposed them when both the Tories and Labour promised to implement the Browne Commission in their 2010 Manifestos; opposed them in the Commons when they were increased in December 2010 by this Government; and I oppose Labour’s current policy of setting them at £6000.”
Responding to the increase, Shabana Mahmood MP, Labour's Shadow Minister for Higher Education, said: "The Government’s unfair, unnecessary and unsustainable decision to treble tuition fees to £9,000, while cutting university funding by 80 per cent, is putting many young people off university and threatening economic growth for this country and skills for the future. It demonstrates how out of touch ministers have become from the needs and aspirations of families up and down the country."
However, Ms Mahmood reaffirmed the party’s opposition to free higher education by saying Labour would only cap fees at £6,000 rather than abolishing them.