Protesters pull barriers apart during student demonstrations in Parliament… (Carl Court / AFP/Getty Images )
Reporting from London — In the biggest test so far of Britain's coalition government, a divided Parliament voted Thursday to nearly triple the amount that universities can charge for tuition, despite the wrath of thousands of student protesters who organized marches and sit-ins across the country.
Demonstrations outside the Houses of Parliament turned violent as lawmakers debated the measure for several hours. Protesters attacked government buildings and hurled flares and billiard balls at police officers in riot gear and on horseback. Some smashed the window of a car carrying Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, but police said the couple were unharmed.
At least 10 officers and nearly 40 protesters were injured, and more than a dozen demonstrators were arrested.
In the House of Commons, the vote on the highly emotive issue presented the stiffest challenge yet to the unity of the political odd couple that has ruled Britain since May. The measure passed 323-302, and though most Conservative Party lawmakers backed the boost in fees, their junior partners in government, the left-leaning Liberal Democrats, were sharply split over the proposal, because it directly contradicted one of their key campaign promises.
Two Liberal Democrat ministerial aides resigned over the increase, an embarrassment for the party's leader, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg. A Conservative ministerial aide also stepped down.
The coalition, though shaken, is expected to survive without much problem. But students vowed to keep up the pressure and to widen their protest to oppose other elements of the government's sweeping plan to cut billions of dollars from public spending.
"They basically lied to students," said Sarah Tooze, 22, an engineering major at Cambridge University who braved London's wintry weather to march on Parliament. "I just think they're completely stupid."
The new measure lifts the ceiling on annual tuition at English universities from about $5,200 to $14,200. The Tory-led government insists that the increase is necessary as part of the belt-tightening across Britain to bring down the nation's budget deficit. But opponents contend that the higher fees will shut out poor students from higher education and saddle young people with unreasonable debts.
English universities were largely tuition-free until the Labor government of former Prime Minister Tony Blair introduced fees in 2004, in what was also a closer-than-usual vote. The Conservatives voted against the plan.
The latest measure created a particularly awkward situation for the Liberal Democrats, who came in third in the May election. During the election campaign, the party promised to fight any increase in student fees, with many parliamentary candidates, including Clegg, signing public pledges to that effect.
Now yoked to the Tories in government, party leaders grimly told the rank and file that it was no longer possible to stick to that promise. Clegg defended the new plan as the best option available in an age of austerity, but disarray in his party reached a point where Business Secretary Vince Cable, a Liberal Democrat, suggested that he might vote against the tuition increase even though it was his responsibility to introduce the proposal in Parliament.
In the end, Cable was among 27 Liberal Democrats who voted for the measure. Twenty-one voted against it, considerably reducing the government's majority and dealing a major blow to Clegg's efforts to keep his party united and prevent cracks in the coalition.
After hitting a high in the polls during the election campaign, support for the Liberal Democrats has dropped precipitously since they joined the Conservatives in government. Many longtime party stalwarts are aghast over their leaders' acquiescence in what they see as a radical right-wing agenda to scale back government and abandon Britain's most vulnerable residents.
"The idea that they are a party that can be trusted has gone," Ed Miliband, the leader of the opposition Labor Party, told the BBC. "The idea that they can be a progressive party has gone."
Thursday's demonstration was the fourth time in the last month that students have converged on London to protest the hike in tuition. The first demonstration, on Nov. 10, also turned violent, resulting in damage to the Conservative Party's London headquarters.
After the vote in Parliament, a large group of demonstrators moved from the government district to Oxford Street, one of London's biggest shopping areas, and attacked a store there.
Other demonstrations around the country passed relatively peacefully.