PEERS may be prepared to fight the government all the way on Scottish university tuition fees, possibly delaying the implementation of the Teaching and Higher Education Bill.
In what would be a rare challenge to Commons supremacy, peers say that they have no intention of backing down on their opposition to the government charging English, Welsh and Northern Irish students for the fourth year of a Scottish honours degree when Scots and other European Union nationals are exempt.
Clear signs of the impending battle came on Tuesday when the House of Lords voted overwhelmingly by 212 to 89 to amend the bill to ensure equal fees treatment for all United Kingdom students. The Commons had overturned an original Lords' amendment to the same effect.
A spokesman for the Department for Education and Employment said that the government would ask the Commons again to overturn the Lords' amendment. This raises the real prospect of the Lords repeating the exercise.
Baroness Blatch, Conservative education spokeswoman in the Lords, said:
"There is a very good case for the House of Lords sticking to its guns. This is a matter of fundamental principle. One only has to look at the size of Tuesday's vote. Despite a three-line whip the government could only muster 87 Labour peers to oppose the amendment. There were significant diplomatic absences."
A spokeswoman in the Liberal Democrats whips' office in the Lords said that the party would consider its next step in the light of the Commons vote.
Ronald Crawford, secretary of the Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals, said: "We look forward to our views being equally persuasive in the House of Commons."
Earlier on Tuesday the government narrowly defeated a Conservative amendment seeking to retain grants for student maintenance. The government, contrary to recommendations in the Dearing report, wants to scrap maintenance grants and it voted down the amendment by 132 to 105.
Speaking for the first time in a Lords debate on the bill, Lord Dearing confirmed that the committee of inquiry he chaired had initially wanted to scrap grants but had changed its mind.
He said: "Being suspicious of my Treasury past and concerned about participation of the poor, I remain with the committee's original recommendations."
Lord Dearing voted to retain grants but was against Conservative Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish's amendment on the Scottish anomaly. Two Labour peers, Lords Glenarthur and Stoddart of Swindon, voted for the Conservative amendment.
Scottish Office minister Lord Sewel said the anomaly would not hit applications. Latest figures show 33,000 non-Scottish UK residents compared to ,000 Scots.