The tuition fee cap in England is set to rise to £9,000 (or $14,000, well over twice current levels) after the government survived a rebellion from Liberal Democrat backbenchers to win a House of Commons vote Thursday.
As thousands of protesters effectively laid siege to the gates of Parliament, MPs today voted by 323 to 302 to back the measure following a five-hour debate.
The new fee cap – which is still subject to a vote in the House of Lords next week – will enable universities to charge up to £9,000 from 2012-13, although there will also be a “soft cap” of £6,000, above which they must sign up to agreements on widening access.
Despite the proposal's being passed, the result indicated that a large number of Liberal Democrat MPs voted against the government, breaking the coalition agreement with the Conservatives that they would only abstain if they could not vote for the plans.
A number of Tory MPs had also pledged to vote against, including former leadership candidate David Davis.
Despite this, the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, had secured the support of all 17 Liberal Democratic ministers, but at least one Parliament Private Secretary – Mike Crockart – resigned in order to oppose the proposals.
The vote has opened up deep rifts in the party, after most Liberal Democrats MPs signed a National Union of Students pledge before the general election to oppose a fees rise.
Vince Cable, the Lib Dem business secretary, who himself signed the pledge, faced cries of "shame" in the Commons as he commended the proposals, which he said were more progressive than the current system.
Watched by the Prime Minister David Cameron and Clegg – who both left the debate shortly after Cable’s speech – he said alternative options to cut student numbers or to starve the sector of funding from any source were "unacceptable" and he was "proud" of the measures being put forward.
But John Denham, the Labour shadow business secretary, said the government’s policy was the “most profound” change in university funding since the 1920s and would introduce an “untried, untested and unstable” market into the system.
He cited evidence from the Higher Education Policy Institute and others that the plans could actually cost taxpayers more in the long run due to the vast amount of money needed to prop up the loans system.
Both Denham and Cable also tried to use analysis from the Institute for Fiscal Studies to back up their case – it stated that the proposals were "more progressive than the current system," but also that graduates from the poorest 30 percent of households will end up paying more. Meanwhile, Gareth Thomas, the Labor shadow universities minister, pointed out that the IFS had also cast doubts over the government's proposed National Scholarship Scheme by warning it could generate incentives for universities to turn away students from poorer backgrounds.
As the debate carried on inside the Commons, masses of students, lecturers and other activists outside were confronted by lines of police in riot gear and on horseback.
The standoff was punctuated by repeated scuffles as protesters tried to break through from Parliament Square, frequently throwing bottles and placards.
Inside the Commons a small number of protesters were removed from the public gallery during the debate, and the Parliament Square demonstration could also be heard from inside the chamber.