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Last Updated: Wednesday, 31 March, 2004, 17:38 GMT 18:38 UK
Student fee plans face fresh test
Students protest about fees
Students protest about fees
A fresh Labour rebellion is expected when MPs vote on allowing universities to charge variable tuition fees.

The controversial Higher Education Bill passed its first Commons hurdle in January by just five votes.

Education Secretary Charles Clarke says a rebel amendment opposing the variable fees would mean higher tuition charges.

Minutes before the crucial test, MPs threw out a Tory attempt to abolish tuition fees by 378 votes to 227, government majority 151.

Removing regulation?

The five-hour Commons debate on the controversial Bill is due to end with votes at around 1831 BST.

The government wants to allow universities to charge fees up to 3,000 per year, as part of a funding plan to increase places in higher education. Currently, the flat rate figure is 1,125.

Mr Clarke insisted rebel MPs such as John Grogan and Ian Gibson had failed to understand the impact of the amendment they had drafted.

He said it opened the door to fees of 5000, 10,000 or even 15,000 a year by removing current regulations and letting universities do what they wanted.

The government won't throw the toys out with the pram if they lose tonight
John Grogan

Mr Clarke told BBC Radio 4's Today: "Because it is in effect a wrecking amendment we would take the step, if the amendment was passed, of withdrawing the whole Bill and the whole package, which means no 2,700 grant, no getting rid of up-front fees."

But Mr Grogan predicted: "The government won't throw the toys out with the pram if they lose tonight - I think there will be constructive discussions and I hope we will have a higher education policy around which the party can unite."

The rebel leaders counter that Commons clerks have checked that the amendment would have the impact they hope. It is expected to be voted on shortly after 1820 BST.

Close vote

When the Bill had its second reading earlier this year, Mr Blair staked his authority on winning the vote but the government only scraped through with its 161 majority reduced to five.

Some 73 Labour MPs voted against the government and a further 19 abstained - making it the biggest rebellion at the second reading of a government Bill since 1945.

What I fail to understand is how Labour colleagues ... could even consider backing an amendment which opens the door to fees of 5,000, 10,000 or even 15,000
Charles Clarke

Ministers are expecting a smaller revolt on Wednesday, but Labour rebels are preparing for another onslaught.

They say their amendment 128 would remove the ability from universities to charge variable fees, while retaining the rest of the legislation.

They claim this will mean more money for universities could be raised, but with everyone still paying the same.

Two tier fears

Proposing the amendment, Dr Gibson said he resented the claim of one fellow Labour MP that he was a "bad loser" trying to wreck the whole Bill after defeat on the last vote.

Variable fees would produce a "divided and divisive university system", with the top institutions being able to charge more than the rest, he told MPs.

"They will tie students' choice of degree and careers to price," added Dr Gibson.

Surely the best solution is to get rid of the 50% target and cut funding for the courses that offer no benefit to the country
Peter, Bristol

At prime minister's questions, Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy urged Tony Blair to drop his plans and instead raise taxes for the top 1% of taxpayers.

But Mr Blair replied: "All we are saying is that a small proportion of the overall investment in university education should be repaid by the graduate according to their ability to pay.

"I think that's a fair system which people will support."

The numbers of Labour rebels' voting against the government are likely to be swelled by Conservatives and Lib Dems.

For the Tories, Tim Yeo said: "We believe that it is a very damaging bill, which harms universities by the imposition of a regulator, and also burdens the next generation of students with huge debts which will make it difficult to get mortgages and to make a start in life."

The BBC's Carolyn Quinn
"The tuition fees issue has divided the Labour Party"

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