Plans to allow universities to charge top-up fees could be defeated by Christmas unless the government makes further concessions to rebel Labour MPs.
More than 120 Labour backbenchers signed an early-day motion opposing variable fees and calling for "informed debate" before the introduction of top-up fee legislation, promised in this week's Queen's speech.
The strength of opposition is confirmed by a THES survey of Labour rebels, which found just three MPs prepared to say that the government had won them over - despite weeks of pressure. It should take at least 83 rebels from the 400 Labour MPs to topple the bill, as Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs are expected to vote against en masse.
The EDM includes the signatures of at least 15 MPs who had not backed previous motions against top-up fees - and features five former Cabinet ministers. Robin Cook, Clare Short, Chris Smith, Nick Brown and Frank Dobson have all lent their weight to the motion.
Paul Farrelly, the Labour MP behind the EDM, said: "If the government does not concede to the very deep opposition to variable fees, this package of reforms should be defeated on the second reading as the whole bill stands or falls on the central concept of variable fees."
Mr Brown said: "Differential fees are the thin end of a very fat wedge.
There is pressure to raise the cap from famous academic institutions. This will create ever-widening divisions. In our manifesto we promised not to do this."
Mr Dobson said the rebellion was far greater than the one against foundation hospitals last week. Then, 62 MPs voted against the legislation, which scraped through on 17 votes.
But education secretary Charles Clarke countered the rebels and said: "The fact is that all students benefit from this package. University will once again be free to the student while they are studying. Neither they nor their parents will have to pay any fees before or while they are studying.
This will particularly benefit the families to which Mr Farrelly refers in the early-day motion, on modest or lower-middle incomes, who just miss out on government help with fees. At the moment, those families have to find Pounds 1,125 in upfront fees every year."
Barry Sheerman, chairman of the House of Commons select committee on education, has organised a series of seminars to persuade Labour backbenchers to support the government. He said that the government was winning over MPs.
But Labour MPs Peter Bradley and Alan Whitehead have put forward an alternative proposal that would see a switch from differential fees to a standard fee of £2,500 for all universities and increased maintenance grants of Pounds 5,000 for poor students. "Variable fees are the sticking point," Mr Whitehead said. "Our plan offers the government a way out."
Mr Bradley, parliamentary private secretary to the rural affairs minister Alun Michael, said he could be the first to resign from a government post over top-ups.
Opposition MPs, trade unions and students added their criticisms of the top-up fee legislation. Both the Conservative and Liberal Democrat education spokesmen issued statements condemning the bill. The Association of University Teachers, lecturers' union Natfhe and the National Union of Students also outlined their concerns.
The government faced more unexpected opposition from the Higher Education Funding Council for England. Attacking proposals in the bill for an Office for Fair Access to monitor student admissions, Hefce chairman David Young said: "My personal ambition is that Offa is a short-run phenomenon and the work it does is subsumed within the funding council."
Hefce was also concerned that some subjects, including nursing and the arts and humanities, were concentrated in less-popular new universities, which would receive more limited additional income if they cannot charge the full Pounds 3,000 fee for many courses. It has called for a debate on whether these institutions should be compensated from the public purse, partly undoing the government's creation of a market-based system.
The government is likely to offer concessions to win over the rebel MPs next week. As The THES went to press, the government's preferred option was a university bursary scheme, with institutions funding bursaries out of fee income.
But this has split vice-chancellors, as heads of new universities say this will unfairly hit those institutions that do most to widen access to poor students.
The bill, detailing how to implement the pledge in the Queen's speech that "universities will be placed on a sound financial footing", is expected to be published and given its first reading next week. The second reading - when rebels will have a chance to defeat the bill - is expected before Christmas.
The bill will pave the way for upfront fees to be abolished and Offa created. It will also contain plans to create a new mechanism for dealing with student complaints, to establish the Arts and Humanities Research Board and to pave the way for the Welsh assembly to take charge of student finance.