The labour movement resoundingly rejected the government's plans to introduce university top-up fees and to concentrate research funding this week.
In a clear sign of the rough ride ahead for the government's higher education policy when it goes to Parliament later this autumn, the Trades Union Congress unanimously backed a motion at its annual conference in Brighton that said that university access must be based on "ability, not ability to pay". Delegates predicted that top-up fees would spell electoral disaster for the government.
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, said: "The Labour government will lose more than the argument if they pursue this policy. A great number of Labour MPs oppose these plans - they know their seats in Parliament will not get just burnt, they will get incinerated."
Paul Mackney, general secretary of lecturers' union Natfhe, said: "MPs know this is a vote loser - 120 have signed motions opposing top-up fees, which the Labour Party promised not to introduce. Labour will shovel votes to the Tories even though they would hold back expansion and keep higher education as a middle-class preserve."
He said the £3,000 upper limit on top-up fees would not hold, and the policy of allowing differential fees would create first, second and third-class institutions, blocking working-class access to the best universities.
"The only new group going into university will be dimmer and dimmer members of the upper and middle classes," he said. "Bright working-class students will have to make do with what is available locally, as they cannot afford to leave home. It's an 'upstairs-downstairs' policy."
Both Natfhe and the AUT said university expansion should be paid for through progressive taxation.
The higher education bill to be announced in the Queen's speech next month could trigger the largest Labour backbench rebellion since the party came to power in 1997. Some 170 MPs have signed motions opposing fees, including 139 Labour members.
A poll from the AUT this week found that 80 per cent of the public opposed top-up fees, with all social classes united in opposition.
The issue was notable for its absence in chancellor Gordon Brown's keynote speech to the TUC. In a passing reference, Mr Brown, who is understood to be unenthusiastic about top-up fees, said only: "I ask you to support modern and reformed systems of funding."
Mr Mackney said that education secretary Charles Clarke and his ministerial colleagues were "charging over the cliff. But unlike Walt Disney characters they do not have the legs to keep them from plunging into the abyss below."
The anti-top-up fees motion from the AUT also expressed "deep concern at the government's policy of concentrating public funding for research in an ever smaller number of universities".
It said: "Congress does not agree with the government that the best way to ensure that research flourishes across all English regions is by concentrating funding in a small group of universities, predominantly in the Southeast."
It also attacked plans for teaching-only universities "since they dilute the fundamental concept of higher education - that teaching and research are inextricably linked".
• Freshers' week could prove chaotic for new students across the capital as the Association of University Teachers prepares for a series of strikes designed to hit the start of term next month.
The AUT was expecting a resounding "yes" vote this week from members in 13 London institutions in favour of industrial action over the failure of London's old universities to increase their cost-of-living allowance for the past 11 years.
AUT members at King's College London voted about 70 per cent in favour of strike action last week, but employers have managed to avert industrial action during the student registration period by making an improved local offer, which will go to another ballot.