The Liberal Democrats unveiled a £2 billion tax-and-spend higher education policy at their conference in Brighton this week that would abolish tuition fees and exempt England from the £2,000 graduate contribution the party helped implement in Scotland.
The party hopes to raise an extra £4.5 billion a year by taxing those on salaries over £100,000 a year at 50 per cent rather than the current 40 per cent.
About half of the extra tax income would be made available to higher education to abolish fees, reinstate grants of about £2,000, implement the Bett report recommendations for improved lecturer pay, and to upgrade university buildings and equipment.
In his speech to conference on Tuesday, the party's education spokesman, Phil Willis, appealed to Labour MPs to vote against legislation to introduce top-ups. He reminded them of Labour's 2001 pledge not to introduce top-up fees in the current parliament.
Mr Willis said: "Do not turn top-up fees into your poll tax. Because that is what Liberal Democrats will make it in the run-up to the next general election."
The English Liberal Democrats' proposal for maintenance grants of about £2,000 is double what the government has proposed, without resorting to the graduate endowment scheme that their colleagues north of the border support as part of their power-share deal with Labour in the Scottish Executive.
In Scotland, all graduates are eligible to pay just over £2,000, which is repaid when they start earning more than £15,000 a year, to help pay for student grants. Mr Willis told The THES that the continuation of endowments in Scotland was a matter for Scottish Liberal Democrats.
The revised policy is based largely on the outcome of the party's 18-month review of higher education led by Baroness Sharp, the party's education spokeswoman in the House of Lords.
Speaking on Monday at a fringe meeting organised by the National Institute of Adult and Continuing Education, Baroness Sharp said: "When we looked at the endowments, we thought it absurd to say to students from poorer families 'oh here's a grant' and then effectively take it away from them after graduation."
In an attempt to put clear water between them and the Conservatives, who propose to scrap fees but at the cost of expanding higher education, Baroness Sharp said that the Liberal Democrat proposals for education credits would mean expansion beyond the government's 50 per cent target.
Everyone reaching university-entry standard would be entitled to 360 credits. People would be able to "spend" credits at accredited higher education institutions. An honours degree would consume the full 360 credits. A single module might cost just 50 credits.
Baroness Sharp said: "We need to open up opportunities to earn and learn."
Proposing a motion supporting the new higher education policy on Tuesday, Baroness Sharp said that the credit-based system relied on universities introducing greater modularisation, giving equal weight to vocational qualifications in admissions and offering more part-time study options.
The motion was passed overwhelmingly by conference. The motion also said that research was an integral part of university life and it committed the party to supporting the link between teaching and research.