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Last Updated: Wednesday, 31 March, 2004, 19:47 GMT 20:47 UK
Rebels lose top-up fee protest
Commons
MPs deliver their verdict
Labour has seen off a revolt by its own MPs against plans to allow universities to charge variable top-up fees.

The government defeated the amendment by just 28 votes, with Clare Short and Frank Dobson among 57 Labour rebels.

Labour's flagship Higher Education Bill, which will allow universities to charge 3,000 fees, will now move to the Lords for further scrutiny.

Ministers say there is a crisis in higher education funding but critics say the plans will hit poorer students.

'Vote for the future'

The narrow victory of 316 to 288 votes was scored after a five hour debate which was dominated by impassioned speeches from both sides of the argument.

Alice Humphreys
The whole quality and nature of higher education is under threat

The scale of the revolt was smaller than at the Bill's second reading in January, when it scraped through by a margin of just five, with 72 Labour MPs voting against the government.

Twenty one of the January rebels were missing from the voting record on Wednesday, but six Labour MPs voted against variable fees for the first time, meaning that, overall, the rebel vote was down by 15.

The Bill - which received a Third Reading by 309 votes to 248, a government majority 61 - still faces a rocky ride through the House of Lords.

Education Secretary Charles Clarke said he believed the vote was "a vote for the future of higher education and this country".

Once the bill became law there would be a "significant programme to explain to people" precisely how it will operate, he added.

But shadow education secretary Tim Yeo said the measure was "bad" for students, universities, taxpayers and democracy.

He said the debt imposed on students would make it harder for them to acquire mortgages and may mean having to put off having a family.

'Battle not over'

The "unprincipled way" in which Labour had broken its manifesto pledge not to introduce tuition fees would further "damage" people's faith in politicians and the political system, he added.

We all solemnly made a deal with the electorate at the last election - we said we were against variable rate top-up fees
John Grogan

Leading Labour rebel Ian Gibson said the battle "isn't over until the fat minister sings" and predicted peers might attempt to sabotage the Bill.

"There's so much disquiet about the Bill, not just in the House, but in the country generally," he told BBC News 24.

"We reflect a lot of the opinion out there in the country, not just the students ... but the lecturers and parents and others who are very concerned about the effects of the Bill."

Mandy Telford, president of the National Union of Students, said: "Although we are disappointed at this vote, this battle isn't over. The NUS has a history of changing the face of Bills in the House of Lords, and we are confident we will do this again this time."

University 'market'

Earlier, Mr Clarke threatened to withdraw the whole Bill if rebels succeeded in blocking variable fees.

He accused rebel MPs, such as Dr Gibson and John Grogan, of failing to understand the impact of the amendment they had drafted.

He claimed their efforts to outlaw variable fees would open the door to higher charges of up to 15,000 a year by removing current regulations and letting universities do what they wanted.

But Dr Gibson told the Commons that variable fees would produce a "divided and divisive university system", with the top institutions being able to charge more than the rest.

"They will tie students' choice of degree and careers to price," he said.

'Cheap courses'

Phil Willis, for the Liberal Democrats, warned that poorer students would end up worse off under the government's proposals.

"For our poorer students, the only way they get an advantage is if they take their 2,700 grant and go to the cheapest university offering the cheapest courses or invest in the stock exchange and hope they get a return," he said.

When the Bill had its second reading earlier this year, 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.




WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Polly Billington
"The wind was not behind the rebels"



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