Thousands of students, lecturers and school pupils will protest against government plans to treble tuition fees at English universities as MPs gather to vote on the controversial issue.
Prime Minister David Cameron has insisted the plans – which will see students charged up to £9,000 a year – are fair, as tensions continue to run high.
Amid speculation that as many as half of Liberal Democrat MPs and a handful of Tory rebels could vote against the Government and many others abstain in Thursday’s vote, ministers were forced to add new concessions to their proposals.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg spent the day touring the TV and radio studios in a frantic last-minute drive to put a lid on rebellion. But he failed to win over his own party’s deputy leader, Simon Hughes, who said he would at least abstain and may vote against the package.
However, the Government felt confident enough of victory to tell Energy Secretary Chris Huhne he did not have to fly back from climate change talks in Mexico to bolster the “yes” vote.
It also emerged that students’ leaders had proposed cuts totalling £4.2 billion over the next four years in support for poorer undergraduates, university teaching funds and scientific research grants as they tried to stave off higher tuition fees.
Private emails sent to Business Secretary Vince Cable in October, while he was drawing up his response to the Browne report on higher education funding, set out proposals including a £800 million reduction in maintenance grants – worth up to £2,906 a year for students from disadvantaged backgrounds – which NUS president Aaron Porter said could avoid the need for a hike in fees.
A coalition source said it was “astonishing” that the NUS was opposing increases in fees, to be paid after graduates are earning £21,000 or more, when its leaders were ready to contemplate “drastic” cuts in grants for existing students.
But Mr Porter said he had provided the “modelling” of spending cuts in response to a request from Mr Cable to show how fees could be held down to current levels.
Thursday’s protests are expected to centre on central London where there will be a march and rally. Students will hold a vigil at Victoria Embankment with 9,000 glowsticks representing the potential new fee level.