Students protest against proposed tuition fee rises in Birmingham, central England (Reuters)
Angry student protesters massed in London on Thursday to march on Parliament ahead of a controversial vote on plans to triple university tuition fees.
The vote poses a crucial test of the viability of the Conservative-led partnership with the Liberal Democrats and the government's austerity plans designed to reduce Britain's budget deficit.
The vote also casts an uncomfortable spotlight on Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who like other Liberal Democrat candidates signed a pre-election pledge to oppose any such hike. In the coalition agreement, the Liberal Democrats reserved the right to abstain in any vote to raise tuition fees.
That created an awkward position for Business Secretary Vince Cable, a Liberal Democrat who at one point suggested he might abstain from voting for the proposal, even though it came from his office.
Weeks of nationwide protests reached a crest, as thousands of students mounted demonstrations and sit-ins throughout Britain on Thursday. In central London, where recent protests have turned violent, demonstrators braved near-freezing temperatures to assemble ahead of a march through the city.
The protesters are targeting Westminster, where they will rally and greet lawmakers arriving to cast their votes.
While some Liberal Democrats in the House of Commons have declared their opposition, that is unlikely to block the increase. "The real danger for the government is not that they won't pass it through, but that it will be a policy fiasco," said Patrick Dunleavy, professor of political science at the London School of Economics.
Prime Minister David Cameron's government defends the move as a painful necessity to deal with a record budget deficit and a sputtering economy.
The government proposed raising the maximum university tuition fees in England from £3,000 (about $4,700) a year to £9,000 (about $14,000). Students reacted with mass protests that have been marred by violence and have paralysed some campuses.
Reacting to the protests, the government modified its plan by raising the income level at which graduates must start repaying student loans, and by making more part-time students eligible for loans.
Ed Miliband, leader of the opposition Labour party, fired back during the heated question and answer session, saying the hikes will burden British students at public universities with the highest fees in the industrialised world.
Miliband said the education policy was in chaos.
"Only the prime minister could treble tuition fees and then claim that it is a better deal for students," Miliband said. "No one is convinced, frankly." The controversy has highlighted regional differences in the United Kingdom.
The Welsh regional government has pledged to subsidise the higher fees for any student from Wales who enrols at an English university.
Student fees in Scotland are just £1,820 per year, sparking fears of a future stampede of bargain-hunting students from England. Northern Ireland's fees are capped at £3,290 a year.