In an attempt to attract middle-class parents hit hard by fees, Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith announced he would end Labour's "tax on learning" and oppose moves to increase fees from today's pound;1,200 to as much as pound;3,000 per year. A Conservative government would also scrap Labour's target of getting half of all young people into university by 2010 and abandon attempts to regulate university admissions to ensure access for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Labour's fees have penalised "hard-working families who want their children to get on," Mr Duncan Smith said.
Education Secretary Charles Clarke now faces a tough task to persuade 140 Labour opponents of top-up fees to back a Bill introducing them. The MPs, who include former Cabinet ministers Chris Smith and Frank Dobson, all signed a parliamentary petition calling on the Government to abandon them.
With the Liberal Democrats also opposed to fees, fewer than 90 Labour rebels could inflict defeat on the Government.
Margaret Hodge, higher education minister, said that the Conservative moves would mean 100,000 fewer students at university. Will Straw, president of Oxford University Students' Union and son of Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, welcomed the commitment to abolish fees, but described scrapping the targets for wider participation as "misguided".
Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: "If this is a guide to the future direction of the party's policies for education, we look forward to the next announcement."