Plans for a massive rise in student fees are in danger of being defeated by rebellious Liberal Democrat MPs.
The long-awaited inquiry by the former BP boss Lord Browne into student finance is set to recommend the current £3,290 cap on top-up fees be lifted when it is published tomorrow. Most universities are expected to charge students £7,000 a year. The report will rule out a graduate tax as originally favoured by the Liberal Democrats.
Lord Browne also suggests allowing some of Britain's most selective universities to charge even higher fees. However if they charge more than £7,000 they will have to find bursaries to pay for students from disadvantaged backgrounds to meet the costs – with the money coming out of their own coffers. Higher education analysts say this could lead to charges of £15,000 a year being levied.
The prospect of a graduate tax was ruled out at the weekend. In an email to Liberal Democrat MPs, the Business Secretary Vince Cable said: "While it is superficially attractive, an additional tax on graduates fails both the tests of fairness and deficit reduction."
However, all 57 Liberal Democrat MPs signed a pledge to vote against any fee rises during the election campaign. At least 20 have indicated they intend to stick by that pledge despite a clause in the coalition agreement allowing them to abstain on the issue – in recognition of their deep-seated resentment of increased fees.
The National Union of Students predicts that more than 30 Liberal Democrats will keep their pre-election pledge, including all of the party's backbenchers. This could cause serious problems for the Bill which could be defeated in the Commons.
Prominent amongst the opponents of a rise is former party leader Sir Menzies Campbell who has said: "I will vote against any increase in the level of tuition fees. My root objection is to students being saddled with mountains of debt by the time they leave university."
Notable amongst backbench opponents of fees in the party is Dr Julian Huppert, MP for Cambridge, who says on his website that he is in favour of scrapping tuition fees. Stephen Williams, MP for Bristol West, is unlikely to be persuaded to back Lord Browne's conclusions. Greg Mulholland, MP for Leeds North West, is also thought likely to rebel.
Senior figures in the "no to fees rises" camp have included the former party leader Charles Kennedy and the deputy leader Simon Hughes.
Opponents of a fees increase are heartened by the accession of Ed Miliband to the leadership of the Labour Party. He pledged an end to fees in his election campaign and said that he would favour a graduate tax instead.
That makes it likely that all 258 Labour MPs will swing behind opposition to fees rises. Sadiq Khan, the shadow Justice Secretary, said yesterday: "What we can't have is where someone who is the son of a bus driver like me has got to go to the university near his home not because it's best for me but it's the only one I can afford." He kept open the prospect of Labour supporting a graduate tax.
Even those who backed the introduction of the current £3,290 cap – such as Alan Johnson, who was Higher Education minister at the time – would argue that the sheer size of the rise made it impossible for them to support it.
David Willetts, the Universities minister, is understood to favour ensuring the cap does not rise any higher than £7,000 a year. His boss at the Department for Business Innovation and Skills, Vince Cable, who floated the idea of a graduate tax but was rebuffed, is said to be trying to limit any increase to £5,000 or £6,000.
The Coalition Government is unlikely to make any immediate announcement following the publication of the report – preferring to wait until after the Comprehensive Spending Review next week. Even the Conservatives have rebels within their ranks. According to the NUS, which masterminded the "no to fees rises" pledge card during the election campaign, four of the current Conservative MPs signed it.
One of them, Lee Scott, MP for Ilford North, said: I'm waiting to see exactly what comes out but I'm hoping we're not going to see a rise in tuition fees."
However, a second of those named by the NUS, Ben Wallace, the MP for Lancaster and Wyre, said it had "misinformed" people as to his intentions.
The result of any Commons vote on a fees increase is on a knife edge.
The arithmetic shows 264 of the present parliament have promised to vote against the measure. All the Scottish Nationalist and Plaid Cymru MPs are pledged to vote against it as are two of the Northern Irish Social Democratic and Labour Party's three MPs and the Green MP Caroline Lucas. However, to their ranks can safely be added 66 Labour MPs who did not sign the pledge but now face a turnaround in their party's policy.
That has to be balanced against the likelihood that Liberal Democrat ministers, a third of the parliamentary party, are likely to follow the government line and abstain.
Even if all four Tories cited by the NUS are brought into the party fold, that leaves a result tied at 307 voting for and 307 against – with the spotlight thrust on eight so far uncommitted Democratic Ulster Unionist MPs, an Independent Unionist MP and an SDLP and Alliance MP (both likely to vote against). As a result, student leaders will be ratcheting up the pressure on Liberal Democrat MPs warning them they will use right-to-recall legislation to set in process a motion where they could be forced out of office for breaking an election pledge.
MPs on all sides acknowledge there is all to play for in the coming months with the result of any vote likely to remain unknown until the night of the final debate on any legislation.
Time to apply elsewhere?
Trinity College, Dublin, with alumni as famous as Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett, can offer European Union students an undergraduate place for €1,657 (£1,454) a year.
Most BA courses at Edinburgh, Scotland's top-ranking university, cost £1,820 for the 2010-11 academic year for students from elsewhere in the UK, with Scots paying nothing at all. That could soon change, however, as the Scottish government is due to publish before Christmas a Green Paper on the future of higher education funding.
The University of Maastricht charges £1,500 in fees for courses and is ranked 116th in the world – higher than many of the UK universities charging twice as much. It is already recruiting students from the UK.
An undergraduate course at the Technical University of Munich, ranked 55th in the world, costs only £845.
The Ecole Normale in Paris is even better value, offering courses at the snip of £160 and ranked 28th in the world.
Finland, Sweden, Norway, Iceland
All listed by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development as not charging tuition fees for domestic or EU students.
However, Iceland does charge for places at its private universities.
Sweden says it is introducing charges for international students from next year. Youngsters from EU countries would not be affected. The good news is that courses in Finland and Sweden offer a wide range of courses in English.
Italy, Japan, Korea, Mexico
All listed as charging lower tuition fees than the UK at present. Many of their courses are also offered in the English language.