In spite of intense government arm-twisting, Labour's tuition-fee refuseniks show little sign of backing down. But will they hang together as ministers press ahead?
The government faces an uphill struggle to get its top-up fees bill through a hostile Parliament, a THES poll revealed this week.
The THES contacted 143 of the most vocal Labour critics of top-up fees. Of these, just three said that months of government wooing had paid off and that they would now support the higher education bill, which will seek to introduce variable fees of up to £3,000 a year.
Thirty remained either determined or inclined to vote against the bill, with seven unsure. The rest declined to answer.
With a government majority of 165 in Parliament, the bill will fall if just 83 of Labour's 408 MPs vote against it. This is assuming that the Conservatives' 163 members and the Liberal Democrats' 54 also vote against the legislation, as is expected based on both parties' anti-fees policies.
More than 100 Labour backbenchers this week signed an early-day motion opposing variable fees and seeking more debate.
The THES telephone poll gives an idea of the range of views among MPs and of what concerns them most about the legislation.
A major issue for many of them is a clear breach of a Labour Party 2000 manifesto commitment - "We will not introduce 'top-up' fees and have legislated to prevent them."
But principled concerns about access to university dominate among those who are determined to vote against the bill. Most MPs believe that the proposals will make it harder for working-class students to go to university.
And there is a strong view that top-up fees will create a two-tier higher education system, with poor students concentrated in poor universities.
There is even evidence that the government bursary scheme - where universities use money from fees to fund their own bursary schemes - is alienating MPs.
lmost a dozen early-day motions against increased tuition fees have been submitted by MPs in the past year alone.
In November 2002, Paul Farrelly, Labour backbencher representing Newcastle-under-Lyme, called on the government "to adhere to its policy of ruling out such extra charges in this and successive future parliaments".
Some 171 MPs have since signed the motion, 137 of whom are members of the Labour Party.
In February this year, John Grogan, a Labour backbencher representing Selby, warned that "the government's proposals for top-up fees will mean access to university is based on ability to pay, not ability to learn".
Some 158 MPs signed the motion, which "urges the government to abandon its plans for top-up fees, which will lead to a two-tier higher education system". Of these, 93 were Labour MPs.
Last month, Austin Mitchell, Labour MP for Great Grimsby, called for legislation to be delayed while a full public inquiry "to examine proposals for top-up fees and their effects on both the top tier of the universities and the rest, and on participation rates, particularly of those less well off, to look at alternative funding schemes".
The number of signatories for this early-day motion so far is small, just 28. Of these, 23 are Labour MPs.
Philip Cowley, a politics lecturer at Nottingham University and an expert in parliamentary rebellions, said it was notoriously hard for Labour rebels to unite. This difficulty was demonstrated by last week's narrow victory for the government over its plans to create foundation hospitals, he said.
"On foundation hospitals, in all 87 MPs voted against them at some point.
But at the final reading it was just 62, so the government won," he said.
But Dr Cowley has also analysed top-up fee rebels in terms of their past behaviour.
"Many of these MPs have actually followed through and voted against the government on a number of matters in the past. This makes the rebellion serious," he said.
Joan Walley, Stoke-on-Trent North
I'm still seeking clarification on what is being offered. The concerns I have are about the non-elite universities that don't have large numbers of donors and that desperately need additional funding to be able to meet the commitments we are giving as the Labour government.
Representing an area of high deprivation, it is very important we don't deter low-income family children. I'm aware enough of the real world to know you can't increase the numbers of people going in without increasing the funding. It's about how we can find a fair way. At the end of the day, it's about how youngsters in Stoke are going to be able to afford to go to university, and ensure that it's not just giving differential fees to elite universities but ensuring the integrity of all universities.
Malcolm Savidge, Aberdeen North
I haven't made my decision yet. It depends on the precise details. I'm concerned about top-up fees. They're an example of a number of things where the government has rushed ahead without consulting the party, Parliament or people. I am concerned that they would be divisive. A limited number of universities would be able to attract staff from other institutions. The danger is that you'd end up with selection on the basis of people's means. I'm concerned at the effect north and south of the border. The thing that does concern me is the number of policies not in the Labour manifesto or run quite clearly contrary to the spirit of the manifesto that seem to be emanating from the top without proper consultation.
Graham Allen, Nottingham North
I will be supporting the government and think it is not going far enough. For graduates to be paying towards the cost of their university course is very progressive taxation. But there has to be an increased grant. We need to front-load all the help available. We have to separate the two issues of a justified increase in fees and an increased grant.I am delighted with the recognition that abolishing the grant was wrong.
The more people realise this is not a debt but a payroll deduction to be made when you are able, the more support there will be. But the political argument on the manifesto is blurring the issue. If the government had said nothing, it could be confident at the second reading. This shades into other antagonisms. It is a way of saying 'so far and no further'.
I am content for the fee limit not to be capped for five years. It is better to find the proper market price and then intervene. I would favour increasing the interest rate on loans to 3 per cent. This only adds extra payments, it does not increase the weekly payments.
Geraint Davies, Croydon Central
I am supporting the government. It has been receptive to representations made and the issue of access has been well-addressed. University bursaries are a significant development.
Wayne David, Caerphilly
I will be supporting the government because it has listened to backbenchers like myself who expressed reservations. I have been impressed by the efforts made to establish bursaries - it makes the whole proposition very acceptable.
THE ADAMANTLY OPPOSED
Robert Wareing, Liverpool West Derby
Tuition fees will work against the interests of bright working-class students and people of moderate incomes. Wild horses would not drag me into the division lobby to vote for tuition fees or top-up fees.
Des Turner, Brighton Kemptown
I will most certainly vote against variable top-up fees... I'm concerned about the destructive impact they could have on universities outside the prestigious inner ring.
Martin Salter, Reading West
I'm opposed because of the three Ds - debt, discrimination and dishonesty. It would be a breach of the manifesto.
Alan Simpson, Nottingham South
Fees would be followed by top-up fees, to be followed by differential fees. Higher education would be driven from ability to affordability.
Geraldine Smith, Morecambe and Lunesdale
I think it leads to a two-tier system. Students should choose universities on their ability. If a poor student becomes a barrister why should they not have to pay something back if they earn £60-£80K? But a middle-class student does have to pay back at £15K. It's grossly unfair.
Michael Connarty, Falkirk East
There should be one fee for every course and every student. The idea of a graduate contribution is fine. I went along with this initially as I thought it would be a Cubie for England.
Helen Clark, Peterborough
Top-up fees are completely unfair and will discriminate against young people from less well-off backgrounds. I went to university and got a maintenance grant and rent allowance in vacation. Holiday jobs were for inter-railing. Today, students cannot make ends meet. No concessions will win me over.
Tony Worthington, Clydebank and Milngavie
There have been quite a lot of concessions. I still think the starting salary for repayments of £15,000 is too low for most students... I'm a graduate tax person.
Richard Burden, Birmingham Northfield
In principle, I cannot see me supporting a proposition for differential fees. The issue of bursaries doesn't actually address the issue.
Hilton Dawson, Lancaster and Wyre
I will be voting against differential fees, although I will support the bill on second reading because it will have a lot of other good stuff in it. Allowing differential fees will produce a situation in which students from backgrounds wary of debt are more likely to opt for cheaper courses rather than those for which they would be most qualified, thus cementing the inequalities I thought we were trying to eradicate.
I have no objection to across-the-board fee increases and think the government is mad for allowing parents who can afford to make contributions to fees off the hook.
Tam Dalyell, Linlithgow
I am rector of Edinburgh University and have talked to a number of colleagues about how top-up fees will impinge deleteriously on Scotland. Unlike foundation hospitals, I will be voting against them.
Brian Iddon, Bolton South East
I was a university chemist for more than 30 years... I once heard a minister say that surely students should be prepared to pay for better courses at Oxford and Cambridge. I want my constituents from poor families to be encouraged to go to Oxford and Cambridge, not discriminated against by massive top-up fees. If there's no change from now, I will have to vote against it - but they might make amendments.
Ian Gibson, Norwich North
I am against top-up fees. As last week's research showed, the poorest students faced the most debt. I would much rather higher education were paid for out of taxes. But I would go for a graduate tax.
Frank Cook, Stockton North
I never close my mind if there is still movement... But at the moment I am inclined to vote against it. It is the principle that I object to. Tony Blair went to university without paying such a penalty, as did his wife. Margaret Thatcher went twice.
Lindsay Hoyle, Chorley
One way or another, I don't see how I can support top-up fees. The manifesto was quite clear: no top-up fees. I don't see how I can tell the people who voted for me that I have changed my mind.
Lynne Jones, Birmingham Selly Oak
I am a former biochemist and I will be voting against the bill. The only way I could find it acceptable would be if there was a large enough grant to cover those currently eligible for the highest loan.
Early-day motion put down by Labour MP Paul Farrelly:
That this House recognises the widespread concern about the effects variable tuition fees and the perception of debt may have on access to universities, particularly among students from families on modest or lower middle incomes; notes that there are alternative models of funding higher education, which the Education Department has considered and which do not involve variable top-up fees; and calls on the government, therefore, to publish full details of these alternatives to facilitate proper, informed debate and understanding before proceeding with legislation to reform the higher education funding system.
PROGRESS OF THE BILL
Announced in Queen's speech
Published in full in the first week of December, when it will receive its first reading. A concession to rebellious backbenchers concerned about the potential damage to access from higher fees, probably on bursaries, is likely to be announced at this time.
A second reading is expected before Christmas. It is at this stage that the principles of the bill will be fully debated in the Commons and a vote could take place to stop the bill going any further.
Committee stage. In January and February, the report will reach its committee stage. The bill will be debated clause by clause. The membership of the committee will be crucial. The whips elect
the membership and choose the chair. The committee, which can contain 50 members but normally has about 18, will reflect the composition of the parties in the Commons. Any MP can table an amendment but it is the chair who chooses which go forward for debate.
Report stage. The amended bill will go back to the Commons for debate, with the speaker selecting amendments to go forward.
Third reading. MPs will get their final chance to debate the bill in full and stop it going any further.
Lords. The bill will go to the Lords in May or June and pass through roughly the same stages as it has in the Commons.
Return to the Commons. Expected back in Commons in June or early July. The bill will bounce backwards and forwards between the two Houses as amendments are agreed or thrown out. The Salisbury convention - where the Lords accepts the democratic mandate of the Commons - usually prevails when it comes to this final stage of passing legislation. But, as there is disquiet in the Lords that this bill breaks a manifesto promise - there could be trouble for the government.
Royal assent. Expected to receive assent and get on the statue books in time for universities to start preparing to charge top-up fees.