In an amazing twist creating yet more turmoil and chaos for this year’s poor university applicants, around one fifth of universities have had a change of heart on the levels of tuition fees they will charge next year. The change comes after government miscalculations on average fee levels forced David Willetts and his team to tinker with the system in the 11th hour, trying to force some institutions to lower their prices.

In an attempt to rectify its mistake, the government tried to persuade universities to charge lower tuition fees by announcing that 20,000 extra student places would become available to those institutions charging fees of £7500 or less. The Office for Fair Access has indicated that some 25 universities then sought to make last-minute changes to their fees arrangements in order to take advantage of this offer.

Whilst the deadline for UCAS applications is not until mid-January, allowing MPs to stress that these late changes should not affect students, many applicants, particularly from high-performing schools, are encouraged to apply as early as possible, often before Christmas, in order to give themselves the best possible chance of admissions success. For those conscientious candidates who have already submitted their applications, the news of these lowered fees will come as a blow.

In addition, students applying to Oxford and Cambridge have to apply much earlier in the period, with a deadline of 15th October for all applications. Given the highly competitive nature of Oxbridge courses, second and third choices are important for these applicants, who will now be denied the opportunity to take advantage of the new lowered tuition fees at 25 universities, having already chosen their back-up options.

As well as the changes to tuition fees levels, OFFA has announced differences in the levels of bursaries and scholarships available to support poorer students aiming for higher education amidst these dramatically raised tuition fees. Students and campaigners alike have been dismayed to learn that the figure available in scholarships and bursaries to support students from low-income families has dropped by an enormous £13.8 million in spite of the soaring fees. It has been predicted that this slashing of financial support whilst massively hiking fees will effectively sound a death knell to equality in higher education, with far fewer students from disadvantaged backgrounds expected to attend top universities from 2012. Many commentators fear that this will eventually lead to a two-tier society, in which poorer students either do not attend university at all, or gain less respected degrees from lower-quality institutions charging cheaper fees.

University and College Union general secretary Sally Hunt denounced the changes as an “utter shambles”, explaining that many of the universities who had lowered their fees had done so by moving money out of bursaries, thus damaging fair access and financial support for poorer students at those institutions. So the illusion of widening access by creating lower-cost university places is just that: an illusion.