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Last Updated: Tuesday, 30 March, 2004, 11:30 GMT 12:30 UK
Q&A: Tuition fees vote
Students on campus
Arguments over higher education are becoming more complex
The government's plans to introduce "variable" university tuition fees of up to 3,000 a year have been fought all the way by Tories, Lib Dems and a large group of rebel Labour MPs.

They complain of a "two-tier system" and students being priced out of higher education.

The government, meanwhile, accuses opponents of jeopardising the future of universities by attempting to scupper the Higher Education Bill.

BBC News Online asks what lies behind the jargon and what a vote by MPs on Wednesday could bring.

What is the government proposing?

Ministers want to allow universities in England to charge full-time students up to 3,000 a year for courses from 2006. Currently, the flat rate figure is 1,125.

Costs should be allowed to vary between institutions, say ministers.

They say this will allow them to raise more money, helping the eventual aim of getting 50% of people under the age of 30 into higher education by 2010.

The government has also promised bursaries, reduced fees and the return of student grants for those from the poorest families.

Rather than having to pay the fees "up-front", full-time students would have the option of paying after graduating and earning above a prescribed threshold.

Isn't that all fair enough?

Certainly not, according to a group of 15 heads of "new" universities - in other words, those that used to be called "polytechnics" until 1992.

In a letter to The Guardian, they said they feared "variability" in fees.

This could lead to their missing out on funding, as more established universities like Oxford, Cambridge and University College London, could charge more - increasing the impression of a "two-tier" system.

The vice-chancellors also said the cap of 3,000 a year was unlikely to last.

So, what are MPs trying to do to change the Bill?

The Higher Education Bill gets its third reading by MPs on Wednesday. It promises to be a long day for Education Secretary Charles Clarke.

Rebel Labour MPs have tabled a number of amendments, among them Amendment 128. This, they promise, would remove the ability from universities to charge variable fees.

So, according to the MPs, more money for universities could be raised, but with everyone still paying the same.

What does the government think about all this?

The Higher Education Minister, Alan Johnson, said the vice-chancellors complaining about the Bill only represent a "minority".

And Charles Clarke accused the rebels of "not understanding" their own amendment.

It would remove the upper limit on fees and allow much higher fees, achieving the opposite of what the MPs intended, he claimed.

Mr Clarke said the whole reform package would go if the Commons voted for Amendment 128, including the help promised for poorer students.

Will the vote be close?

If the last one, in January, is anything to go by, then yes: the Bill passed its second reading by just five votes.

Lib Dems and Conservatives are set to vote against the government.

Expect a day of manoeuvre and counter-manoeuvre between two committed sets of opponents.

Labour backbenchers have the fate of the Bill in their hands. The stakes are high for all concerned.

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