British students protest
Protesters pull barriers apart during student demonstrations in Parliament Square, London. (Carl Court / AFP/Getty Images / December 9, 2010)
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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 around the country.

The 323-302 vote on the highly emotional issue presented the stiffest challenge yet to the unity of the political odd couple that has ruled Britain since May. Although most Conservative lawmakers backed the rise in fees, their partners in government, the left-leaning Liberal Democrats, were sharply split over the proposal, which contradicted one of their key campaign promises.

The legislative showdown came as thousands of young people converged on the British capital to show their displeasure.

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Demonstrations near the Houses of Parliament occasionally turned ugly, with some participants hurling objects and scuffling with police, who were on foot and horseback. Several marchers were arrested, and at least three officers were taken to the hospital, police said.

The new measure raises the ceiling on annual university tuition fees from about $5,200 to $14,200. The Tory-led government said the increase was necessary as part of Britain's austerity plan to cut billions of dollars in public spending, but opponents contend that students from poor families would be excluded from higher education.

The measure put the Liberal Democrats in a particularly awkward situation. During the general election campaign in the spring, the party pledged not to support any increase in student fees. But now in government, party leaders grimly told the rank and file that it was no longer possible to stick to that promise.

As part of the coalition agreement between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, however, individual members of Parliament from the junior party were allowed to vote their conscience, which resulted in the reduced majority for the government.