PEERS are threatening to sink government plans to introduce tuition fees this year after moving for a rerun of the committee stage of the controversial Teaching and Higher Education Bill.
Amendments to be considered later this month aim to cut and neuter crucial chunks of the bill relating to the charging of tuition fees and the introduction of the new student loans system. If defeated in the Lords, the government may have to reassess its timetable for the introduction of loans and fees from this October.
The amendments will be considered at the report stage of the bill due on February 23. However, Liberal Democrat Lord Tope has put forward a motion calling for the recommittal of part two of the bill relating to fees and loans, which could pre-empt or otherwise disrupt the report stage.
Liberal Democrat higher education spokesman Phil Willis said: "There is a strong possibility that if there is a recommittal, then the government may run out of time. In the worst-case scenario they may have to reconsider the scheduled implementation in October."
A committee of the whole House of Lords must vote in favour of the motion before there can be a recommittal. If this happens the bill would then undergo a fourth and possibly fifth day of committee, most likely replacing the scheduled report stage on February 23.
Conservative peers will support the recommittal motion, giving the two parties a combined 406 majority over Labour peers. Conservatives will also support some of the key Lib Dem amendments. These would include the deletion of clause 18 on tuition fees and ensure that if undergraduates have to pay fees then the proceeds are kept by the higher education sector.
Conservative education spokesman Baroness Blatch said: "There are serious moral issues attached to the charging of tuition fees and abolition of maintenance grants. Yet nothing in the bill gives the opportunity to debate these and the policy as a whole."
Officially, the bill completed the third and final day of its committee stage last week. But peers felt that the government had misled Parliament over the legislative authority required for charging students tuition fees. They claimed that, as a result, they had tabled the wrong amendments and so required a second chance through recommittal.
Lib Dem Earl Russell, professor of history at King's College London, said:
"What the government is trying to say is that we got it wrong because of stupidity. That is not the case."
Peers acknowledge that universities have the power to charge fees, currently paid by the state through local authorities, but they say that the bill adds nothing to this power and so there may be insufficient authority to demand payments directly from students and their parents.
The government argues that the power is sufficient. It says that part two of the bill is concerned primarily with ending the payment of fee subsidies through local authorities, a prerequisite for charging students directly, and preventing institutions charging fees on top of the maximum of Pounds 1,000.