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STUDENTS on Wearside will have to pay between £7,000 and £8,500 for degree courses from 2012.

Sunderland University today announced some of the cheapest tuition fees in the North East.

The news comes after former polytechnics Teesside and Northumbria universities announced across-the-board fees of £8,500 last week.

Newcastle and Durham universities have already said they intend to charge £9,000 a year from 2012.

Sunderland is proposing a three-tier system which will see more expensive-to-run degrees, such as laboratory-based courses, charged at £8,500 per year – not far short of the £9,000 maximum.

Lower-cost courses would be £7,800 and foundation degrees would start at £7,000. There would also be a £10million support package to help less well-off students.

Vice-chancellor Professor Peter Fidler said: “With the new fees structure for 2012 and the £10million support package, the University of Sunderland is sending out a clear message that it is ensuring the door to higher education remains firmly open.

“It is essential that people are aware that higher education is still free at the point of entry – there are no up-front fees – and that repayment will be made from a graduate’s contribution from future earnings.”

Even at the lowest level of £7,000, the proposed fees are more than double those paid now by Sunderland students.

It will leave the average student on a three-year degree course at Sunderland with at least £21,800 of debt.

Professor Fidler said the university had no choice but to raise fees.

He said: “The Government cuts to higher education funding and the enforced increase in tuition fees has caused great concern in the sector.”

The university said more details of the £10million support package and rates for specific courses could not be released until the Office for Access approves the proposals – likely to be in July.

There are fears the number of students at Sunderland University – the vast majority of which come from the North East – will drop as a result of the higher fees.

Northumbria and Teesside’s decision to charge just £500 less than the more prestige institutions of Newcastle and Durham has already raised eyebrows.

Professor Fidler said university management had consulted widely, particularly with staff and students, and was confident the institution could continue to offer “an exceptional student experience.”

Sunderland University Students’ Union was unable to comment at the time of going to press, but some students said they were shocked by the announcement.

Third-year student Kevin Moeliker described the new price range as “disgusting”.

“How can they justify charging students this much when eight or nine years ago it was free?” said the 23-year-old.

“I am really glad I am finishing my course this summer, but it’s no consolation for the people who are hoping to go next year.”

A Sunderland University academic who quit in protest over the Government’s tuition fees rise called today “a dark day for everyone”.

Pharmacy lecturer Tristan Learoyd made national headlines in February when he resigned over what he called poorer students being “priced out” of higher education.

Dr Learoyd said: “I was told when I resigned that Sunderland would charge £6,000, though it might be two-tiered, but that hasn’t happened,” he said.

“Charging £8,500 a year for a degree course is not encouraging participation.”