Almost a fifth of English universities are to lower their tuition fees to below £7,500 in a bid to take advantage of extra student places, it has been announced.
It comes just weeks before the application deadline for 2012, and means thousands of those who have already applied could now find their fees have changed. In total, 24 universities in England plus one further education college have had plans to lower fee levels approved by the Office for Fair Access (Offa).
But the National Union of Students (NUS) raised concerns that the Government's attempts to get universities to keep average fees below £7,500 do not benefit students or graduates because they encourage "con trick" fee waivers.
Plans to triple fees to a maximum of £9,000 were approved by MPs in December 2010. Universities planning to charge more than £6,000 had to submit "access agreements" to Offa setting out how they planned to support students and ensure those from poorer homes were not priced out.
However in a White Paper published this summer, after institutions had submitted their agreements, ministers announced that universities who charged average fees of £7,500 or lower would be able to bid for a share of 20,000 so-called "core and margin" places.
The decision was widely seen as an attempt by ministers to keep fees low after it began to emerge that many universities would charge at, or close to the maximum £9,000. To qualify for the places, universities had to have average fees of £7,500 or less after fee waivers had been taken into account.
Fee waivers reduce the amount of money a university asks a student to borrow to cover the cost of their tuition fee. The NUS argue that students should be allowed to choose bursaries over fee waivers which gives them money in their pocket now to cover university costs.
NUS president Liam Burns said: "The Government's 'access tzar' Simon Hughes himself said that students should be able to choose bursaries over fee waivers. The perverse incentives of the Government's changes mean that poorer pupils are encouraged towards courses and universities that have less funding - a complete reverse of the 'pupil premium' that Mr Clegg has championed for younger learners."
Director of fair access at Offa Sir Martin Harris said: "What we have seen is that in addition to reducing their headline fees by £16.3m, institutions have also significantly increased fee waivers. In short, money is not just being moved from one pot to another, there's also additional investment, particularly in fee waivers, so reducing the net costs for some students."
But he added: "Bursaries are money in a student's pocket now whereas fee waivers reduce a loan that some students may not need to repay in full. We don't yet know which will prove more effective in terms of supporting and protecting access and retention."