Peers have backed government plans to raise student tuition fees in England to as much as £9,000 a year. Labour tried to throw out the proposals, which were passed by MPs last week, but the opposition amendment was defeated by 283 votes to 215. The House of Lords' decision means that the higher fees are expected to come into force from 2012. Ministers called the plans the "fairest deal" possible, but Labour accused them of "privatising" universities.
Moves to increase the maximum annual fees for students from £3,290 to £9,000 have prompted outrage among students, culminating in violent protests at Westminster last week. More than twenty Lib Dems and six Conservative MPs voted against the government's plans last Thursday, but they still passed through the Commons. Had the Labour amendment succeeded, it would have overturned the earlier MPs' vote, forcing the coalition to reintroduce the measure in the Commons if it had decided to continue with the policy.
During the Lords debate, government spokesman Lord Henley told a packed house such an outcome would be "fatal", adding: "There is absolutely no mechanism for the Commons to address or put right a defeat in these circumstances and accepting one or both of the noble Lord's amendments would therefore be, in practice, a veto." Labour spokesman Lord Triesman accused the government of attempting to drive through the "privatisation" of higher education.
He said: "This afternoon's decision will switch the concept of universities from being a public good, as they have always been through modern history, to essentially a private sector, market-driven by personal private investment." Lord Browne - the former BP chief executive who carried out a review of higher education funding in England which recommended unlimited fees - backed the government.
Despite government concessions offered in the run-up to the Commons vote, Lib Dem education spokeswoman Lady Sharp said she was uncomfortable about what the changes would mean for the cost of a degree and the deterrent it would be to students from a variety of backgrounds. "I face a dilemma," she said. "I have a lot of reservations and I am in the same position as many Liberal Democrat MPs.
Ministers insisted that, with no upfront fees and graduates only having to contribute to the cost of their degree when their salary reaches £21,000, the proposal was the "fairest deal" in the financial climate. National Union of Students president Aaron Porter said: "I am both saddened and disappointed by the outcome in the House of Lords this evening. I fear that this evening our aspiration - to create a fairer and more equitable higher education system - has been set back for a generation."