It is being billed as the Clause IV debate of the student movement. More than 900 delegates will decide tomorrow whether the National Union of Students should abandon its commitment to state grants. The vote is expected to be a cliff-hanger.
A special conference in Derby has been called by campus unions who argue that the tax-payer cannot afford to restore grants to their 1979 levels and students will have to contribute to the cost of their education.
Around 35 student unions have backed a motion calling for the introduction of loans to cover maintenance, to be paid back through income tax or National Insurance after graduation.
But the modernisers face the full force of student left-wingers. Thirty- four unions are supporting a motion insisting that university education should be funded by the state through increased public investment.
Those campaigning for free education insist that abandoning such ideology will lead to increased hardship and that entrance to university will be based on income, not ability. They believe students from poorer backgrounds will be frightened off by the prospect of debt.
They have an emotive cause, one of the NUS's most cherished policies - a battle cry that mobilised a mass march in London only last autumn.
The reformers say restoring spending to 1979 levels would cost pounds 8.86bn and would mean a 5p increase on the basic rate of income tax. They believe a change in policy will allow the NUS to influence the political debate on new ways to fund education - such as a life-long graduate tax or employers' levy.