Students could face unlimited fees to study at universities in England following recommendations from an independent review of higher education funding.
Lord Browne’s review, launched in November 2009, calls for the current fee cap of £3,290, which students pay through loans, to be scrapped. It says universities should be able to charge what they want to allow institutions to develop in quality. It is expected some "elite" degrees will charge up to £12,000 per year.
Under the proposals any university charging more than £6,000 per year will have to pay a levy to make sure it contributes to funding for the poorest students.
Furthermore, higher charging universities will have to show the regulator and its students improved standards of teaching and a fair admission process.
Lord Browne says all universities are different and so should be able to charge what they need to in order to keep world-class status. He doubts, however, that many institutions would charge “very high” fees.
Aaron Porter, president of the National Union of Students (NUS) says: “If adopted, Lord Browne’s review would hand universities a blank cheque to force the next generation to pick up the tabs for devastating cuts to higher education.
“The only thing students and their families would stand to gain from higher fees would be higher debts.”
The review proposes that graduates will not start repaying their loans until they earn over £21,000 a year. Currently, graduates start repayments when they earn more than £15,000.
Defending the proposals Lord Browne said if graduates chose to go into a job that didn’t pay very much or choose not to work in order to have a family, they wouldn’t have to pay back the loan.
Another recommendation is to change the interest rate graduates pay on their loan, by setting it at the government’s rate of borrowing – currently 2.2% – plus inflation.
In a move that has received criticism from some Liberal Democrats Lord Browne also recommends allowing graduates to repay debts early.
Certain Lib Dems say this will mean graduates earning higher salaries can pay loans back quickly and avoid higher interest charges, while lower and middle salary earners would continue to pay interest for years.
The NUS and University and College Union have announced a demonstration to take place on 10 November to protest against education cuts.
The higher education review will now be scrutinised by ministers who will respond in due course.