The monitoring of university efforts to recruit more working-class students by the government's proposed access regulator is set to be the key issue of debate as the higher education bill comes under scrutiny in the House of Lords.
Senior government sources have predicted that the Lords would be "easier on variable fees, harder on the Office for Fair Access", education secretary Charles Clarke's proposed university access regulator.
Ministers steered the higher education bill through its final Commons stage and into the Lords last week with their core proposals intact, despite a revolt by 57 backbench Labour MPs opposed to variable tuition fees of up to £3,000 a year.
The bill will now be subject to intense scrutiny by peers, some of whom are distinguished academics and more than 30 of whom serve as university chancellors or pro chancellors across the higher education sector.
Under Mr Clarke's plans, universities will need to agree an "access plan" with the regulator - setting out how they will seek to attract students from poorer social backgrounds - to charge variable fees from 2006.
The 207 Conservative peers - the largest party in the Lords - will take their cue from their counterparts in the Commons, who accused ministers of "social engineering" and "interfering" in university admissions, and called for students to be selected according to their "merit and potential".
During the report stage and third reading of the bill in the Commons last week, Labour backbench MPs - such as Nottingham North MP Graham Allen - urged ministers to increase the powers of the regulator to give it "teeth" in its negotiations with universities about fees, bursaries and scholarships.
The 64 Liberal Democrat peers are also expected to seek to amend the government's proposals for Offa; arguing instead for the Higher Education Funding Council for England to continue its work monitoring efforts by universities to widen participation across the social classes.
Both opposition parties are expected to push ministers to clarify whether university applicants in 2005 who want to take a gap year will have to pay tuition fees when they enter university in 2006.
The government will have to rely on the support of the 182 Labour peers and a majority of the 179 crossbenchers - Lords with no party political allegiance - to get the bill through without amendment.
If the Lords amend the bill, it will return to the Commons for further consideration, raising the possibility of what one Tory MP described privately as "constitutional ping-pong" with the proposals travelling back and forth between the two Houses before the summer recess in July.
The Tory peers will be led by former Scottish secretary Lord (Michael) Forsyth, while the government's case will be presented by Department for Education and Skills spokespeople Baroness Ashton of Upholland, Baroness Andrews and government whip Lord (David) Triesman, the former general secretary of the Association of University Teachers and latterly general secretary of the Labour Party.
It is also expected that the peers will seek to widen the debate about the social and civic value of a university education.
Lord Dearing, a crossbench peer and author of the 1997 report on the future of higher education, predicted earlier this month that the Lords would want to discuss in depth the role universities play in "shaping a democratic, civilised, inclusive society".
One crucial factor in the Lords' deliberations on the bill - which will see a committee of the whole house consider the government's proposals clause by clause - will be voting discipline and whether peers will toe their party lines.
In his academic paper, Cohesion without Discipline: Party Voting in the House of Lords , Lord Norton of Louth, Tory peer and professor of politics at Hull University, writes that although government whips cannot offer peers the incentives or threaten the sanctions that can sway MPs in the Commons, "party whips (in the Lords) can normally assume that when a party line is taken, the overwhelming majority of their supporters present in the Palace of Westminster will troop into the lobby".
According to Lord Norton's research, between 1999 and 2002, "in more than seven out of every ten divisions (votes) held in the House, there is complete party cohesion: that is, not one peer in receipt of a party whip votes against his or her party colleagues".
Nevertheless, the fate of the bill will be settled by the unaligned crossbenchers, who hold the balance of power between the parties.
Their votes will decide whether or not the government's proposals are amended and they could yet scupper ministers' plans for a regulated market in higher education.
PREDICTED BILL TIMETABLE
April 1: Bill introduced in the Lords for its first reading after passing its third reading in the Commons the night before. The bill is reprinted to take account of amendments in the Commons.
April 19: Second reading, when peers get their first debate on the whole bill. By convention, government bills included in an election manifesto are not opposed by the Lords at second reading, although amendments may be tabled.
After May 3 bank holiday: Start of the committee stage, when the bill is examined by peers clause by clause and usually by a committee of the whole House of Lords. There is no time restriction (guillotine) on debates on amendments, unlike the committee stage in the Commons.
After the Whit recess, which ends June 7: Report stage of the bill, when peers get to debate amendments to the bill made in committee.
Mid-June: Peers vote on whether the whole bill should pass its third reading.
July: House of Commons consideration of any amendments by the Lords. The bill is passed back and forth between the Lords and Commons until agreement on amendments is reached.
Mid to late July: Royal assent?
September/October: Universities begin to formally set the prices for all of their courses, ranging from a possible zero to the £3,000 maximum top-up fee.
December: Universities finalise their course prices, as their prospectuses for the top-up fee paying 2006 entrants go to the printers.
Spring: The higher education market emerges as all universities publicly set out their course prices in prospectuses for the September 2006 entrants.
October: Deadline for Oxford and Cambridge applicants for 2006 entrants.
January: Deadline for university applications for 2006 entrants.
- Lord Alexander of Weedon QC Exeter University, Tory
- Lord Armstrong of Ilminster GCB CVO Hull University, Crossbencher
- Lord Ashcroft KCMG Anglia Polytechnic University, Tory
- Lord Attenborough Kt CBE Sussex University, Crossbencher
- The Rt Hon Baroness Boothroyd The Open University, Labour
- Lord Bragg of Wigton Leeds University, Labour
- The Rt Hon Lord Brittan of Spennithorne QC Teesside University, Tory
- The Rt Rev Rt Hon Lord Carey Gloucestershire University, Crossbencher
- The Rt Hon Lord Carrington KG GCMG CH MC Reading University, Tory
- Field Marshall Lord Vincent of Cranfield University
- Coleshill GBE KCB DSO Chair of Court, Imperial College, Crossbencher
- The Rt Hon Lord Glenamara CH University of Northumbria at Newcastle, Labour
- Baroness Hale of Richmond Bristol University, Crossbencher
- The Rt Hon Lord Holme of Cheltenham CBE Greenwich University, LibDem
- The Rt Hon Lord Hope of Craighead Strathclyde University, Crossbencher
- Baroness Lockwood DL Bradford University, Labour
- The Rt Hon Lord Mackay of Clashfern KT Heriot-Watt University, Tory
- Lord MacLaurin of Knebworth Hertfordshire University, Tory
- The Rt Hon Lord Morris of Aberavon Glamorgan University, Labour
- The Rt Hon Lord Owen CH BA MB BCHir MA Liverpool University, Crossbencher
- Lord Palumbo Portsmouth University, Tory
- Lord Paul Wolverhampton University, Labour
- Lord Phillips of Sudbury OBE Essex University LibDem
- Lord Plumb DL, MEP Coventry University, Tory
- Baroness Usha Prashar CBE, BA, DipSoc De Montfort University, Crossbencher
- Lord Puttnam CBE Sunderland University, Labour
- Lord Brian Rix Kt CBE DL University of East London, Crossbencher
- The Earl of Selborne KBE, FRS, DL Southampton University, Tory
- Lord Sheppard of Didgemere KCVO KT Middlesex University, Tory
- Lord Taylor of Warwick Bournemouth University, Tory
- Lord Tugendhat Bath University, Tory
- The Rt Hon Lord Wakeham Brunel University, Tory
- Lord Wilson of Tillyorn KT, GCMG Aberdeen University, Crossbencher
- Professor Lord Winston Sheffield Hallam University, Labour