Industry needs more scientists and engineers, say employers
Universities which charge higher fees for engineering and science will do lasting damage to the UK economy, manufacturers have warned.
Under government plans, institutions will be able to demand up to £3,000 a year for degree tuition from autumn 2006.
It is feared science and engineering - among the most expensive courses to run because of equipment costs and specialist staff - will be near the top of the price range at most universities.
The Engineering Employers' Federation (EEF) and the Sector Skills Council for Science, Engineering and Manufacturing Technologies (Semta) claim this will put people off the subjects, increasing the skills shortage for industry.
Janet Berkman, head of education and skills at EEF, said: "Differential fees for higher education must not result in engineering, science and technology courses costing students more than degrees in other subjects simply because they are more expensive to operate.
"This would lead to a reduction in the number of suitably qualified employees for industry and damage the UK economy in the longer term."
There has been concern over the unpopularity of engineering and science courses in comparison with the arts and humanities in recent years.
EEF and Semta are calling on universities to adopt a "market-led" approach, where more is charged for the courses most in demand.
This, they say, would encourage a rebalancing of entrants away from some subjects towards science and engineering, which tend to offer better employment prospects.
Ms Berkman said: "If students are faced with a choice between a science subject costing them £3,000 a year, and an arts/humanities-based degree costing less, they may decide to avoid the larger debt, despite the greater marketability of a science/engineering degree."
Michael Sanderson, chief executive of Semta, added: "The government must recognise the expansion of higher education should also come from the promotion of alternative routes such as vocational qualifications and Modern Apprenticeships.
"Currently, around 30% of Advanced Modern Apprentices in engineering continue to degree level study."
Semta also urged against pushing young people into higher education to fulfil government targets. Vocational courses may be more beneficial for some, it added.
The government has set a target of getting "towards 50%" of young people into higher education by 2010.
It says extending the range of annual tuition fees to a maximum £3,000 is necessary to fund this.
The National Union of Students estimates this will leave many graduates owing £30,000, when living costs are taken into account.
The current university tuition rate is £1,100 a year for all students.