As published on guardian.co.uk earlier today...
More than one-fifth of universities and colleges in England are considering reducing their tuition fees for next autumn to an average of under £7,500.
Twenty-eight institutions have expressed an interest in changing their fees, the Office for Fair Access (Offa) – the government watchdog on access – has said.
Hundreds of thousands of students are currently in the process of applying to start university in 2012, and the news means some will be doing so without a clear idea of the fees proposed by their chosen institutions.
In July the watchdog announced that the estimated average annual fee across all universities and colleges was £8,393, but this dropped to £8,161 when fee waivers for less well-off students were included.
At the time 47 universities said they intended to charge the maximum – £9,000 – as their standard fee.
However, universities have been reconsidering their sums after the government gave them incentives to charge less than £7,500 shortly after the watchdog made its announcement.
In a white paper this summer ministers told universities they could bid for a share of 20,000 full-time undergraduate places next year if they charged less than £7,500. The business secretary, Vince Cable, has said the figure of 20,000 will increase in the future.
The white paper was published after universities decided on their fees for next year.
Every institution seeking to charge above £6,000 a year has had to set out how it intends to ensure disadvantaged students are not put off applying through financial packages of bursaries, scholarships and fee waivers. Universities and colleges have had to have these plans approved by the watchdog.
Now institutions that intend to change their fees must resubmit their plans to the watchdog by 4 November. It has said it will re-approve them by 30 November.
An Offa spokeswoman said students had already started to apply for university courses for autumn 2012, and admitted applicants applying to universities now could find the access agreements would change later.
Offa said universities and colleges that changed their fees and access plans would have to contact all students who had already applied to let them know of the changes.
They must also give students who have applied for courses such as medicine and dentistry, which have an early deadline, the choice of staying with the financial package that was on offer when they applied or switching to the revised deal.
Andy Westwood, the chief executive officer of GuildHE, which represents 23 modern and specialist universities and university colleges, said institutions that decided to change their fees would be likely to do so by substituting fee waivers for bursaries in order to bring their average fee to below £7,500.
The Higher Education Funding Council for England, which distributes funds to universities and colleges on behalf of the government, confirmed earlier this week that 20,000 undergraduate places would be removed from universities for next year.
Universities will be able to bid for these places only if they are charging net fees of less than £7,500.
Pam Tatlow, the chief executive of Mmillion+, which represents universities established since 1992, said the coalition "appeared determined to incentivise a market in higher education by changing the rules of the game".
She added: "It is unsurprising that universities have responded by seeking to change their access agreements."
Toni Pearce, the NUS vice-president, said: "Tens of thousands of applicants now face an anxious wait at an already stressful time.
"Students looking to assess and compare what support will be available to them will be facing weeks of uncertainty and many will find that vital bursaries have been replaced with tokenistic fee waivers."