London - Thousands of students and school pupils protested across Britain on Tuesday against planned rises in university tuition fees, bringing disruption to central London and putting strains on the coalition government.
In fiery exchanges in parliament, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, the leader of the coalition's junior partner the Liberal Democrats, defended the fee hike which his party had promised to vote against during campaigning for May's election.
Outside parliament, there were bizarre scenes of cat and mouse as protesters dispersed from the route of a designated demonstration fanning out across central London with police in hot pursuit.
There were similar protests in other major cities, as anger about the Conservative-led coalition government's plans to almost triple tuition fees to up to £9 000 pounds ($14 500) a year showed no sign of abating.
Students have been occupying university buildings to campaign against the hike, part of austerity measures which will see £81bn of spending cuts over four years.
"It's starting to go back to how it was when only the upper classes can go to university," said Daisy Tolmie, 18, taking part in the third protest this month in the capital.
Saoirise Cox, 17, said: "I want to make them realise that we are political as a group, and that we're not going to let them get away with this."
Protesters say they feel betrayed by the coalition government, in particular the Liberal Democrats because of their pre-election pledge to oppose higher tuition fees.
The issue is becomingly increasingly embarrassing for the party and Business Secretary Vince Cable, a Lib Dem minister whose department is responsible for the proposals, said he might join other Lib Dem lawmakers in abstaining in any vote.
Even Clegg, who has written to student leaders to try to explain the government's case that the new system would be fairer, declined to say during a debate in parliament what he would do in a vote, expected before Christmas.
"If he votes against, that's the only principled position," said Harriet Harman, opposition Labour's deputy leader. "If he abstains, it's a cop-out; if he votes for, it's a sell-out."
While it would be unlikely to block the bill, a rebellion by a significant number of Lib Dems would strain relations between the two coalition parties.
But there is no immediate danger to the coalition as Lib Dem popularity ratings have collapsed since they joined forces with the Conservatives and they would face disaster at the ballot box if they walked out now and forced an election.
Tuesday's protests in London were initially more peaceful than two previous demonstrations in the capital this month. Senior officers had warned no violence would be tolerated and officers in riot gear guarded government buildings.
But protesters who feared being "kettled", a containment tactic used by police, broke up into groups which spread across the streets of the capital. There were minor scuffles and police said they had made three arrests.
The student demonstrations are the first major protests directly linked to the government's spending cuts. Labour unions are warning of strikes and more action as anger rises over job cuts and the loss of some public services.
Riot police were called to break up a demonstration against cuts planned by the Lewisham local authority in south London on Monday, with 16 officers suffering minor injuries in clashes.