Ministers see off rebels in bill triumph

April 1, 2004

Rebel Labour MPs failed to halt the government's plans to introduce variable tuition fees this week as the political battle over the higher education bill moved to the House of Lords.

Ministers saw the bill pass its third reading in the Commons with their core proposals intact despite opposition from the Tories, Liberal Democrats and Labour backbench opponents.

Labour rebels failed to muster enough support for an amendment to replace the government's plans for variable tuition fees of up to £3,000 a year with a fixed-rate charge for students.

The debate now enters the Lords, where the government will rely on 182 Labour peers and the majority of the 180 crossbenchers - lords with no party-political allegiance - to get the bill through without amendment. The Tories and Liberal Democrats have 2 votes. As well as distinguished academics - such as Lords Parekh, Skidelsky and Desai - the House of Lords includes 35 university chancellors.

The chancellors come from across the higher education spectrum - from Bournemouth University (Tory peer Lord Taylor of Warwick) and Bristol University (crossbencher Lord Hale of Richmond) to Leeds University (Labour peer Lord Bragg).

Hinting at the debate to come, Lord Taylor told The Times Higher that he endorsed the repayment of fees after graduation and student support in the bill. But he was concerned about interference by the new access regulator and the variability of fees. "This will further widen the differences in resources for universities and disadvantage the majority of students," he said.

Last week, Lord Dearing - author of the 1997 report on higher education - predicted that universities' role in "shaping a democratic, civilised, inclusive society" was likely to be a subject of intense debate by peers.

Rebel Labour MPs had proposed turning the existing upfront £1,125 fee into a fixed-rate charge to be paid after graduation - but they wanted to retain other elements of ministers' proposals. But ministers warned that if their proposals for variable fees were voted down, they would withdraw the whole bill.

Charles Clarke, the education secretary, claimed that the rebels' amendment would remove the cap on fees.

Put to a vote, the amendment - tabled by Norwich North MP Ian Gibson - was defeated by 288 votes to 316. The bill passed its third reading by 309 votes to 248.

The 55 rebels had been fortified by the publication on Tuesday in a national newspaper of an open letter from 15 vice-chancellors opposed to variable fees.

In response to amendments by MPs Peter Bradley and Alan Whitehead, ministers conceded that there should be a full Commons debate before any changes to the £3,000 limit on fees after 2010 and that the secretary of state should have greater powers to prevent universities exceeding the fee cap.

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