The government may have to introduce top-up fees in direct contravention of Labour Party policy.
Ministers are engaged in a desperate battle to win Labour hearts and minds over top-ups. Education secretary Charles Clarke answered party members'
questions online this week and has written a piece for the Labour-supporting magazine Tribune.
Lobbying of members will continue alongside a nationwide tour of universities by Mr Clarke and higher education minister Margaret Hodge, during which they will try to sell their policies to students, academics and the public.
Senior party sources said the issue would come to a head at the 2004 Labour Party conference, when the manifesto for the general election would be finalised.
Labour's manifesto rules out top-up fees for the duration of this parliament. The government intends to introduce top-up fees of up to £3,000 a year in 2006, after the next election. But Labour Party members could try to insist that the next manifesto rule them out.
No government is bound by its manifesto, but continued opposition from party members would be a serious embarrassment.
More immediately, the government must pass legislation in this parliament to introduce top-up fees in 2006. The policy is so unpopular among Labour and opposition MPs that the government could be defeated over the bill.
About 170 MPs, more than 130 of them Labour backbenchers, have signed an early-day motion against top-up fees put down by Labour MP Paul Farrelly.
The government's majority in the Commons is 165.
It is unlikely that all the Labour signatories to Mr Farrelly's early-day motion would vote against the government on top-up fees. However, many Conservative MPs who have not signed the motion would vote with Labour rebels. Peers are likely to provide even greater opposition, which could drag the legislative process out for months.
A bill is needed to change the current upfront tuition fee system to a graduate repayment scheme. Legislation is required to set up the student complaints ombudsman, the Arts and Humanities Research Council and to allow more electronic information-sharing to cut the bureaucracy involved in means-testing for fees and grants.
• Higher education minister Margaret Hodge is due to give evidence on the government's white paper to the education and skills select committee on February 10.
The committee is carrying out a short inquiry into policies and proposals in the white paper.